It should take less than two hours to fly from Shanghai to Taipei. But there are no commercial flights between the two cities. Coming from mainland China, I had to go south to Hong Kong in order to reach Taiwan’s capital, and the trip took almost a whole day. So close and yet so far; and every hour I spent getting to Taipei—at airports, on flights—heightened my sense that I was traveling to a remote place that had dropped out of time.
Taiwan’s giant neighbor certainly helps create that impression. I had been to China many times but, gripped by the sheer energy and scale of the country’s modernization, I had paid little attention to the small island off its southeastern coast.
Of course Taiwan, which parted ways with Communist China in 1949, has been modern for a long time. It had built an industrial economy by the 1970’s, when China was still a largely rural and poor country coping with the devastation caused by Mao Tse-tung. Very prosperous in terms of per capita income, Taiwan does not suffer from the extreme economic inequality and environmental devastation that increasingly darken China’s future.
Culturally and politically, too, Taiwan is in some ways ahead of China. Taiwan’s pop music is hugely popular and influential across East Asia, and filmmakers like Edward Yang (director of Yi Yi) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers of Shanghai) are revered around the world. After remaining politically stagnant during 40 years of continuous martial law, Taiwan experienced a popular citizen’s movement that turned the island into a democracy in 1987—the first anywhere on Chinese soil. Today, its population of 23 million contains a large and well-educated middle class.
Yet Taiwan has no place at the United Nations or any other international organization. Even countries that maintained diplomatic relations with it for decades have abandoned it for China; Taiwan’s democratically elected leaders are unwelcome in most countries.
The Taiwanese I have met in the United States and Europe often lament their country’s exclusion from the international community. Shortly before leaving for Taiwan, I spoke to Lung Ying-tai, one of the island’s leading writers. Lung spent years in Europe and America before returning in the 1990’s to participate in Taiwan’s democratization. “We used to think of China as a backward and isolated place,” she said. “But it is Taiwan that is now isolated, through no fault of its own. It really makes me very sad.”
I remembered her words as I journeyed to Taipei. Arriving late at night, I prepared for a melancholy city resigned to its marginal status. But there was nothing mournful about the garish thickets of throbbing billboards I saw as I drove in from the airport. Passing the crowded night markets, through the smells of seafood and the sounds of good-humored haggling, I felt as though I had arrived in another great Chinese city, a counterpart to Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Opening the curtains in my room at Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel the next morning, I saw a sprawl of utilitarian concrete blocks enclosed on all sides by green hills. Compared to the slick kitsch of Shanghai, Taipei’s modernity initially seemed a bit dated, belonging to the 1970’s. But within this aging cityscape stood Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world. Resembling an elongated pagoda at the top, it rose shiny tier by shiny tier out of a haze of pollution into the blue sky. It dwarfed the landscape.
Self-consciously grand architecture usually leaves me cold. During the days that followed, I made no attempt to get to the top of Taipei 101. Yet I often found myself standing at my hotel window, arrested by the big, beautiful apparition above the gray city. It spoke eloquently of Taiwan’s prosperity, and I came to see that it represented the national ambition of a fascinating country and people that had been unfairly shunned by the world.
Taiwan’s identity is deeply rooted in chinese culture. Almost 85 percent of the island’s modern population consists of migrants from the Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, and almost 75 percent speaks the Min-nan dialect of Fujianese. But as the example of the United States proves, settler populations eventually find their own ways of defining themselves, breaking with the mother country. Taiwanese self-perception has changed particularly swiftly over the past 12 years: according to a recent survey in the Economist, the number of those identifying themselves as Taiwanese has doubled to 41 percent, while those who see themselves as purely Chinese have dwindled to 6 percent of the population.
But it didn’t take me long to discover that many Chinese traditions—condemned as “feudal” and “bourgeois” in Communist China—never faded in Taiwan, and are actually experiencing a revival. Deprived of its traditions, China today is especially vulnerable to the most commercialized forms of pop culture: a Chinese version of American Idol called Super Girl, for example, draws record viewership. I found it heartening that one of the most popular television shows in Taiwan features a puppet theater called Budaixi, whose costumes and plots draw on ancient Chinese sources.
And if you are a sinophile, the best reason to visit Taipei is the National Palace Museum. With jade-green tiled roofs and yellow walls that loom dramatically out of a mountain valley north of downtown Taipei, it holds one of the largest collections of Chinese artifacts and artwork in the world, including the famous Jade Cabbage—a piece of jade carved to resemble a head of cabbage—and a boat carved out of an olive pit. Much of the best Asian art resides in Western museums. But China, which was never fully conquered or occupied by a Western country, managed to hold on to much of its heritage, and a lot of it was carted away to Taiwan in 1949 by Chinese Nationalists fleeing the Communist army of Mao Tse-tung. Renovated in 2007, the National Palace Museum can lay claim to being the Louvre of Asia.
The tearoom at the museum is a replica of the Three Treasures room at the Forbidden City in Beijing, but when I arrived I found the restoration had left its once-spectacular carved and painted ceiling colored gray-brown. But then, Taipei doesn’t lack for teahouses—indeed, there is a new vogue for them among the young, who had previously preferred to hang out at Starbucks and other coffee shops. One afternoon, I walked from the busy and smoggy Xinsheng South Road into Taipei’s famous Wistaria teahouse—and into a world where time had been ordered to stand still.
Music from Chinese lutes floated through the room; sunlight streaming in from wood-framed windows and skylights and bamboo curtains created dappled patterns on the tatami mats. Green moss clung to the dark red-brick walls. In the small Japanese garden at the back, a spring bubbled quietly amid little ponds and stone tables.
The teahouse’s owner, Chow Yu, who resembles the wispy-bearded sage of Chinese landscape painting, performed a serving ritual, mixing teas and warming miniature pots and bowls with delicate and elegant gestures. Teahouses in imperial China, he explained, were places where the literati gathered. No other traditional culture venerates writers and intellectuals as much as the Chinese. Chow explained that he uses only the ceramic ware favored by the scholarly class in old China: Yixing, which best retains the flavor of tea.
But Wistaria is connected as much to Taiwan’s eventful modern history as to the classical past. Built in 1921, the two-story building was originally Chow’s family residence. “Many writers and intellectuals would gather here in the 1950’s to talk about art and politics,” he said. “It was dangerous, because Taiwan was under martial law and we could have been accused of sedition.” After Chow turned the building into the Wistaria in 1981, it became the favorite watering hole of intellectuals and politicians who participated in the movement for democracy in 1987.
Taiwan has moved on. Its democracy is now a raucous and unruly affair, with two main parties—the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), color-coded blue and green, respectively—that periodically assault each other with allegations of corruption and incompetence. But Wistaria remains popular among the city’s literati. Joining me for a light lunch of steamed vegetables and hot-and-sour soup that afternoon were Chen Hao, a television talk show host, and Yang Ze, an editor at the China Times, Taiwan’s leading daily newspaper.
Like the cities of Italy and France, Taipei abounds in literary bookstores, the kind that have Philip Roth rather than Dan Brown in the window display. Ze confirmed my impression of a small but cultivated reading public. Newspapers, he told me, publish literary supplements every day. The flow of translations from foreign literatures is brisk. Speaking of his own love for literature, Hao was embarrassed to admit that he worked in television. Laughing, he said, “I despise television. I really do!”
I asked Hao and Ze about the windows with metal security grating that I had seen on apartment buildings everywhere in Taipei. “It reflects the general sense of insecurity of the recent refugees from China, as well as of the Taiwanese who have long been residents here,” Hao said.
He and Ze went on to speak about politics with a frankness that slightly alarmed me; it would have been inconceivable in Mainland China. They explained how modern Taiwan remains the unfinished business of the civil war that raged in China in the early 20th century. Since 1949, when the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan, the country has remained in a sort of limbo. American support for Taiwan’s separate identity has steadily dwindled since President Nixon traveled to Beijing in 1972 and began to normalize relations with China. But Taiwan is prevented from being absorbed into what Chinese Communists call their “motherland” mainly by the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which still patrols the narrow strait between Taiwan and China.
“Because Uncle Sam protects us from Big Brother,” Ze said, “we have been heavily influenced by him in many respects, more than we have been influenced by Japan, which ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. American movies and music were very important to all of us who grew up after 1949. There were scholarships to American universities, and almost every educated Taiwanese aimed to study in the United States. Many of those who went as students settled down there.”
Meeting other Taiwanese, I discovered a reverse trend in progress: large numbers of those educated or formerly settled in Europe and America are returning to the island. Along with East Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia, Taiwan was among the first movers of globalization, well before the word became widely known. It also helped bring Mainland China into the web of global trade and investment. Taiwanese money routed through Hong Kong accounted for a large part of the initial foreign investment in China in the 1980’s and 90’s. The chance to do business with the fastest-growing economy in the world is bringing many Taiwanese expatriates back to Asia.
In a posh club adjacent to Taipei 101, I met Joanna Lei, a businesswoman who was also an influential legislator for the KMT. We sat in a private room into which waiters dressed from head to toe in black discreetly brought one delicately flavored dish after another; the Chinese love of good food was evident in the loud gay voices eddying around the club, and the chopsticks fluttered over steaming plates of fish and vegetables.
Traveling to the United States as a student, Lei had risen from research editor at ABC Television to senior executive. She was, as she herself put it in a strong American accent, “one of the highest-ranked Asian-Americans in the media industry.” In the late 90’s, she terminated a promising career trajectory and returned to Taiwan. “I was half-fulfilled in America,” she said. “I wanted to see what I could do in Taiwan.”
Lei hasn’t found it easy to negotiate Taiwan’s highly charged and sometimes nasty politics. When I met her, she was fighting to clear her father, a former defense official, of corruption charges. The rise of China, she said, has crudely polarized Taiwanese society into people who want greater integration with China and those who want independence. She herself hopes for integration.
Indeed, as I discovered, the issue of reunification with China is a Taiwanese obsession. All my conversations in Taipei inevitably veered toward it. When I reported Lei’s views to Lin Cho-shui, a former legislator from the DPP, he responded sharply: “Taiwan is a democracy and China is a dictatorship. How can the two come together?”
Perhaps, as the writer Lung Ying-tai suggested, China will have to catch up with Taiwan and become properly democratic before unification can happen. Many Chinese intellectuals and activists, she claimed, see Taiwan as an inspirational model for democracy in China.
It was Wen C. Ko, one of Taiwan’s leading venture capitalists, who outlined the most likely and practicable scenario. Sitting in his company’s boardroom in Neihu, an upscale business district, he said the inexorable forces of globalization would bring about a gradual and peaceful unification. Taiwanese companies, many of which had offshored much of their work to the mainland over the past decade, are now physically relocating to the Chinese coast, he explained. The close intermeshing of business interests is likely to improve political relations. There are already signs of a thaw: chartered flights between Shanghai and Taipei have been allowed. Taiwan is letting more tourists from the mainland visit.
Looking at it from a business perspective, Taiwan’s absorption into China could make sense. Still, as Ko’s son Patrick pointed out, Taiwan’s youth (almost one-fourth of Taiwan’s electorate is under 30) is far from embracing China’s imitation-modern culture. One afternoon I went to a performance of traditional Taiwanese opera at the Red House Theater, in the Ximending area. Built by the Japanese in 1908, the red-brick octagonal building was recently renovated, like many old structures in Taipei. Stylishly dressed young people filled the café on the first floor and the theater on the second, sitting impressively still during the ancient and—to my ears at least—somewhat long-winded two-hour performance.
It is as though democratization has allowed the Taiwanese to rediscover all the many aspects of their identity. The proof that Taiwan’s cosmopolitanism was imprinted not only by China and the United States but also by Japan shone vividly in the narrow pedestrianized streets of Ximending, Taipei’s Times Square. Here, stalls selling manga comics, Japanese video games, and American baseball caps alternate with food carts peddling oyster noodles and “stinky tofu,” a fermented bean curd with a smell that makes it strictly an acquired taste.
Youth also dominate the crowd of worshippers at Longshan temple, the city’s most revered site. It’s in Taipei’s oldest district, near Snake Alley, one of the more famous night markets, where snakes are sold as food. An incongruous sight in their jeans and high heels and name-brand handbags among the temple’s fantastically gilded and lacquered pillars and walls, men and women in their late teens and twenties kneeled, bowed, and held up smoldering incense sticks with a touching devotion.
Patrick Ko, who like many upper-class Taiwanese was educated in the United States, told me that Buddhism has experienced a big revival in Taiwan, which now has the largest number of nuns in the world. Indeed, Buddhists from Taiwan are now transmitting their teachings to the mainland—a reversal of the historical process that had originally brought the religion to Taiwan. And Buddhism in Taiwan has an even more special aspect: it is less introspective and more oriented toward social welfare than Buddhism in the United States. Buddhist organizations run nurseries, orphanages, hospitals, retirement homes, and clinics; they are an important presence in Taiwan’s civil society.
Patrick himself seemed part of a strong current of idealism running through contemporary Taiwan. While in his twenties, he could have joined his father’s company, easing himself into an Asian elite. Instead, he had chosen to teach in a small school in Nepal. “I know many people my age,” he said, “who don’t want to join the rat race and make money, who want to do something more meaningful with their lives.”
It is as though Taiwan, having already known a degree of material prosperity, is now experiencing a countercultural moment. Certainly, Taiwanese like Patrick who have never lost their Chinese traditions seem to be embracing an ennobled sense of their identity and their role in the world. In that way, they are ahead of many Chinese, who, while savoring their newfound wealth, seem to be stuck in a version of the American 1950’s, with all the familiar traits of conspicuous consumption and conformity.
The world is still likely to prefer China over Taiwan. The island is fated to be always thought of in relation to its powerful neighbor. But the Taiwanese themselves seem undeterred from their pursuit of a separate identity. And when after leaving the island I thought of it, the image that came most readily to mind was of Taipei 101. Despite its beauty, the building had initially seemed pointlessly tall in an otherwise flat and sprawling city. But I now realized that it not only reflected Taiwan’s wealth and modernity; it also proclaimed the dignity of an isolated people, and their determination not to be forgotten.
Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond.
When to Go
Late October to January is the best time to visit Taipei, when the weather is comfortably cool and clear. April to early October is the rainy season, with the occasional typhoon in the summer. The city virtually shuts down for nearly a week during Chinese New Year (which usually falls in late January or early February).
Getting There and Around
EVA Airways offers direct flights to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Newark, and often offers special fares, as does Cathay Pacific, which flies via Hong Kong. Most major U.S. and Japanese airlines connect through Tokyo. The airport is about an hour from central Taipei; metered taxis cost around $36, while the express bus costs around $4. The subway system (known as the Metro) is the best way to get around Taipei (fares start at NT$20, or 60 cents). Addresses in Taipei can be complicated and few taxi drivers speak English; get your concierge to write addresses down in Chinese.
Travel Tips and Visa Requirements
Because of politics, Taiwan hasn’t formally adopted the pinyin Romanization system, the most widely used for Mandarin (it originated from China). Some street signs in Taipei show three different spellings. Stick to pinyin; it gives the most accurate idea of Mandarin pronunciation. But don’t fret—locals tend to very friendly and patient.
Visas aren’t required for U.S. citizens, unless you’re staying for longer than 30 days.
Where to Stay
Five-star living right next door to Taipei 101. 2 Songshou Rd., 886-2/2720-1234; taipei.grand.hyatt.com; doubles from $256.
Panoramic views, and a rooftop pool. 201 Dunhua S. Rd., Section 2; 866/565-5050 or 886-2/2378-8888; shangri-la.com; doubles from $353.
Great Value A sleek hotel with spacious, well-appointed rooms. 297 Zhongxiao East Rd., Section 5; 886-2/2528-8000; tango-hotels.com; doubles from $179.
Great Value Minimalist chic in one of the city’s poshest neighborhoods. 200 Guangfu South Rd.; 886-2/2773-1515; unitedhotel.com.tw; doubles from $220.
Where to Eat and Drink
Taipei has the world’s best array of Chinese regional cuisines, which you can sample in the city’s night markets. Shilin Night Market (Shilin Metro station) is the city’s most famous, though Shida Night Market (Taipower Building Metro station) is less crazed and offers everything from Cantonese dim sum to Yunnanese lamb noodles.
Known for its handsome bartenders, groovy interiors and delicious cocktails. 22 Songshou Rd., 5th floor; 886-2/2725-3520; cocktails for two $18.
Established in 1934, Taipei’s first Western-style restaurant. 308 Minsheng W. Rd.; 886-2/2559-1251; dinner for two $54.
Outstanding Sichuanese cuisine. Be sure to order the wontons in chili oil, the dry-fried green beans; and the stir-fried cabbage with pork, served with shaobing, a sesame-seed bread. 250–3 Zhongxiao East Rd., Section 4; 886-2/2721-6088; just-hot.com; dinner for two $36.
The original—and best—outlet of the legendary dumpling chain. 194 Xinyi Rd., Section 2 (near Yongkang Street); 886-2/2321-8928; dintaifung.com.tw; lunch for two $22.
An old-school eatery best known for its chicken soup, which is simmered in clay pot for hours. 324 Dunhua South Rd., Section 1; 886-2/2708-3110; dinner for two $41.
An arty favorite among students at the nearby universities with spot-on coffee drinks. No. 9, Lane 284, Roosevelt Rd., Section 3; 886-2/2365-3089; coffee for two $15.
A nostalgic lounge with vintage furniture and laid-back ambience. No. 56, Lane 161, Dunhua South Rd., Section 1; 886-2/8773-0906; drinks for two $16.
No. 1, Lane 16, Xinsheng South Rd., Section 3; 886-2/2363-7375; tea for two with snacks $18.
A classic breakfast spot. 102 Fuxing S. Rd., Section 2; 886-2/2703-5051; breakfast for two $3.
Where to Shop
The flagship store for a local book chain also sells gourmet chocolates, French fashion, music, funky stationery, electronic goods and Japanese knickknacks. 11 Songgao Rd.; 886-2/8789-3388.
Organic styles by one of Taiwan’s top designers, in a softly lit setting that also doubles as a teahouse. No. 1–1, Lane 20, Zhongshan Rd., Section 2; 886-2/2563-0568; jamei-chen.com.
A café/gallery/restaurant/design store, the Museum of Tomorrow stocks ingenious Japanese home wares and furniture. 22 Fuxing South Rd., Section 1; 886-2/2751-8088; motstyle.com.tw.
Avant-garde styles by Japanese designer Jun Takahashi. There’s also a café serving cocktails by Barcode. No. 40, Lane 181, Zhongxiao East Rd., Section 4; 886-2/2775-3669.
What to See and Do
211 Guangzhou St.; 886-2/2302-5162.
Bird’s eye views, and inviting teahouses at the end of the line. Take the Muzha Metro line to Taipei Zoo; NT$50 to Maokong terminal station.
A contemporary art museum, located in the old city hall. 39 Changan West Rd.; 886-2/2552-3720; mocataipei.org.tw.
221 Zhishan Rd., Section 2; 886-2/2881-2021; npm.gov.tw.
10 Chengdu Rd.; 886-2/2311-9380.
Longshan Temple Metro station.
An art house movie theater, café, and cinephile bookstore in the old U.S. ambassador’s residence. 18 Zhongshan North Rd., Section 2; 886-2/2511-7786; spot.org.tw.
45 Shifu Rd., 886-2/8101-8934; taipei-101.com.tw.