A Trip to Taipei
Published: June 2009
By Alan Brown
The city is crowded, polluted, and ugly. It's also vastly underrated, with a vibrant arts scene, exceptional restaurants, and mountain getaways just minutes from downtown
IT'S MY FIRST MORNING IN TAIPEI AND I'M STANDING IN FRONT OF THE SWANK Sherwood hotel in a wool suit (bad idea), sweating despite the damp chill, as I wait for my friend Mingwei's mother to take me to the National Palace Museum. The sky is a dull gray and I have a terrible tea hangover. It's possible, I learned last night, to get "tea drunk" in Taipei. And now, despite a jumbo latte from the Starbucks down the street, I'm suffering from a night of dizzying, almost hallucinatory, sleeplessness.
As I mop my forehead with a handkerchief, a sleek, silver Mercedes-Benz glides up and Mingwei's mother steps out. A beautiful woman of a certain age, Mrs. Lee is elegantly dressed, coiffed, and accessorized. Though she speaks English, she's shy and is more comfortable chatting in Mandarin, using her daughter Sophia as an interpreter. Sophia, who has just flown in from Hong Kong, is also beautiful and also knows how to shop.
We exchange greetings and I give them news of Mingwei, an artist living in New York. Then we pile into the sedan and speed to the museum. I'm grateful for its cool darkness as I stroll in the company of these two gracious women past Neolithic pottery and bronzes and Han dynasty ceramics. Mrs. Lee is so regally placid, it's hard to tell if she's enjoying herself. "Where do you usually take visitors?" I ask her. "Golfing," she replies serenely.
BUM RAP Most of what I had heard about Taipei before arriving was badãbad traffic, bad architecture, bad airãand much of it, I soon found out, was untrue. Even if Taipei lived up to its not-so-tempting reputation, it would be worth flying halfway around the world for the art.
Taipei has a lively contemporary arts scene, whose epicenter is at the I. T. Park gallery, where a hip art crowd gathers late at night in the upstairs bar. There are also two small museums of note. One is the jewel-like, family-owned Chang Foundation, which features a rotating collection of ancient Chinese bronzes, porcelain, paintings, lacquerware, and Buddhist images. The other is the Shunyi Taiwan Aboriginal Museum, with a display of Taiwanese arts, customs, crafts, and aboriginal clothing. It was built, curiously, by the local Mitsubishi dealership. The larger Fine Arts Museum showcases foreign and local contemporary artists in a concrete building that seems to exude Le Corbusier's influences.
The big draw, though, is the National Palace Museum, which houses the largest collection of Chinese art in the worldãso large (more than 700,000 items) that only a fraction is on view at any one time, though displays are changed regularly. So large that you should allow at least two leisurely days to see it, with ample breaks for tea and lunch, and walks in the adjacent Song dynastystyle garden. So large that it's impossible to fathom how China's Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, spirited it in 1933 from Beijing's Forbidden City, home of the imperial family, to keep it out of the hands of the invading Japanese army. They shuttled their treasure, in tens of thousands of boxes, around China by train and ship, always a step ahead of the Japanese and, later, the Chinese Communists. Finally, in the late forties, it was taken to the island of Taiwan, where it lay hidden in mountain caves for years. Despite bombings, battles, and inhospitable environments, little was damaged. It's a thrilling story, and a thrilling museum, with what may be the finest assembly of Chinese paintings on the planet, as well as outstanding collections of ancient bronzes, jade, ceramics, and lacquerware.
TEA DRUNK Backtracking 12 hours: I fly into TaipeiãTaiwan's capital, 100 miles off the coast of mainland Chinaãon Sunday evening, breeze through immigration, and speed to my downtown hotel. My first impression is hardly inspiring. The city looks as if it was cobbledãor, more precisely, pouredãfor the sake of commerce. Squat concrete office blocks, wide boulevards, flickering neon signs, mostly in Chinese, with an occasional attempt at English. The Subconscious Restaurant. The Shaking Tea Talking Bar.
Taipei is drab by design, the result of the government's emphasis on economic growth and defense rather than on creating a grand capital for its new republic. Aside from the sprawling white marble Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taipei's architectural delights tend to be small in scale and tucked away on back streets or behind closed doors.
To find these places, I plan to rely on Mrs. Lee and three FOM's (friends of Mingwei), who will guide me for the next week. Frank, Tony, and Jay are waiting in the Sherwood's lobby to whisk me off to the Geng Du Yuan Tea Garden, a lovely, traditional wood-paneled teahouse. There we're led past endless alcoves and tables filled with people drinking tea and chatting, through a curtain, and into a tiny tatami room beneath a staircase. Betty (so says her name tag), our plump, affable waitress, consults at great length with my hosts: What tea shall we drink?What style of tea service?What snacks should we order?Frank, a physician; Jay, an arts program administrator; and Tony, a computer wiz, eye me with concern and knit their brows. Finally the tea arrives, dark and smoky.
Jay takes responsibility for brewing and serving. It's an elaborate, endless, yet casual process, so unlike the ritualistic Japanese tea ceremony. There's much pouring of hot water before the tea is spilled over the clay teapot and into taller "smelling" cupsãtheir sole function, I'm told. Then the tea is poured into the short, squat cups. Yes, you drink from those, Jay explains. But not just yet. Not the first pour, which is discarded after being used to heat the cups.
Golden "champion" almond cakes arrive. If I eat one, I'm advised, I'll be "number one" in my school exams. I'm decades past my exams, and never did very well on the ones I took, but the cakes, resembling shortbread cookies, are nonetheless delicious.
Jay, who has managed to take charge of both the tea and the conversation without loosening his grasp on his cell phone or Filofax, is planning my visit. At one point, mid-pour (about the 10th round, when my toes are beginning to vibrate from the caffeine overload), his phone rings. He hands me the receiver: "Here, speak to Nelson. Nelson is taking you to dinner on Tuesday night because I'm busy."
I have no idea who Nelson isãthis is the first I've heard of himãbut I take the phone. Nelson briskly informs me that he'll pick me up at seven, and then hangs up. People in Taipei, I reflect, are like New Yorkers: busy, hurried, and decisive. I leave myself in their hands. We drink tea and talk for the next three hours, and I'm very, very sorry for it all night long and all the next day.
MISNOMERS When I finally do meet Nelson Yu, a graphic designer who studied in New York, the first thing he tells me is that he "worships" Banana Republic. The second thing he tells me is that he chose his English name after seeing his first Chow Yun-fat movie. "He was tall, rich, and handsome, and his name was Nelson."
Names and identities seem to be slippery things in Taipei and throughout Taiwan, a subtropical volcanic island that is geographically just off the coast of China's Fujian province, but is culturally equidistant from China, Japan, and the United States. Taiwan has an aboriginal population that may or may not have sailed there from the South Pacific. Its Han residents largely came, over the centuries, from neighboring Fujian, while its Hakka minority migrated from Fujian and points south.
The Portuguese named the island Formosa ("Beautiful"). It was colonized by the Dutch and briefly by the Spanish. Then it was ruled for half a century, until the end of World War II, by the Japanese, who forced residents to learn their language and customs. (The younger generation now does so by choice, embracing Japanese fashion, music, and art. Film star Takeshi Kaneshiro, who is half Taiwanese and half Japanese, is currently Taiwan's reigning heartthrob.)
In 1949, when the Communists wrested control of China, the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan and established the Republic of China. Taiwan held the China seat at the United Nations until 1971, but then lost it to the People's Republic of China, which wants Taiwan back. Mainland China regularly holds military exercises off the island's coast, making the Taiwanese nervous.
This past spring, the Kuomintang was voted out of power for the first time in 51 years. It lost to Democratic Progressive Party candidate Chen Shui-ban, who has cooled his anti-Beijing rhetoric despite his party's leanings.
All this results in a confusion of identity: political, linguistic, and cultural. One FOM, Mei-lin, the daughter of mainland immigrants and a curator at the Fine Arts Museum, sometimes has difficulty speaking with taxi drivers. While she's multilingual, with art history degrees from overseas, she grew up speaking Mandarin, not the local Taiwanese dialect.
Well-connected Taiwanese were always a presence at American colleges. But after 1987, when martial law was lifted and the Taiwanese could travel abroad easily, the "diaspora" (as one friend here called it) began in earnest. American schools today are filled with Taiwanese students, many of whom return home with new names and tastes, along with their degrees.
´FROG EGG´ DRINK A decade ago, when I first visited Taipei, it was a fashion backwater, a dreary city of bad haircuts and polyester. No longer. Fueled by international business (the Asian economic crisis merely grazed Taiwan), the latest in everything parades through Taipei's streets. In Tien Mu, where the expats live and shop, the avenues are lined with international boutiques and upscale restaurants. The biggest names in fashion can be found in the shops in Shin Yi and on Duen Hwa North and South roads.
The city's Hsimenting district looks so much like Harajuku, Tokyo's trendy teenage stamping ground, that I almost think I'm in Japan. Mei-lin brings me here to sample the "frog egg" drink, a famous concoction of tea and tapioca balls that resemble frog eggs. Afterward, we go to a stall famous for its spicy pork ramen, and slurp noodles while standing in the street.
I've never been to a city with so many "famous" restaurants. If Chinese art isn't your thing, then come to Taipei for the food. The night I meet Nelson, he takes me to the Really Good Seafood Restaurant, which is noisy and garish, and festooned with gold light fixtures ("We Chinese like bright things because they're a sign of prosperity"). Our meal is delicious—sautéed abalone, steamed lobster, shark's fin soup—but I tell Nelson that I prefer places that are more low-key. (Where are my manners?)
Contrite, he takes me after dinner to his favorite teahouse, where we drink chrysanthemum flower tea and eat red-bean cakes. Orchids surround us, and on our table are two small stones in a dish of water, each a lilliputian mountain overgrown with moss and miniature ferns.
Dintaifung dumpling restaurant is Taipei's most famous (of course), and Jay takes me there, along with Xavier, an FOM and a French artist, who is a finalist in a public-art competition. The boiled, steamed, and pan-fried meat and vegetarian dumplings are sublime at this packed, Formica-topped palace. The Shanghainese dumplings spurt steamy juices with each bite, and the chicken ginseng soup is especially good.
In Taipei, you can taste all the cuisines of China. Wandering through the sprawling, raucous Shihlin Night Market, I sample squid stew, oyster omelette, stuffed pig's intestines, Taiwanese tempura, and all manner of fish, fowl, and meat. My great tolerance for odd foods is tested only by "stinky tofu": the name for this fermented bean curd doesn't begin to suggest its repugnant smell and taste.
Taipei is known for its "beef bowl" restaurants. World-class food sleuth that he is, Jay takes me to Chung Fu Yuan, a dingy shop that serves only this beef-noodle soup. It arrives at the table with a bowl of chopped pickled cabbage, which you dollop on top. Jay tells me there used to be five other beef bowl restaurants on this tiny lane, but Chung Fu Yuan, the best in town, drove them out of business. "And then, of course, there was that unfortunate fire…" he adds as an afterthought.
Now I am food drunk as well as tea drunk. Nelson, still smarting from my thoughtless criticism of his restaurant choice, calls to say he knows just the place for me. Shou Lan is in Yong Kang Chu, a charming neighborhood of narrow streets, antiques shops, and teahouses. The restaurant is clean, spare, and comfortable, with boxes of tissues on the tables and waitresses in blue-checkered aprons.
Shou Lan specializes in home-style dishes. Though we're only two, Nelson orders food for eight: Hot green chili peppers with ground pork. Bitter melon with salted black beans. Silk squash with dried baby shrimp. A generous platter of tender pork marinated in soy sauce, chives, and ginger. It's amazingly good, and I pronounce Shou Lan my favorite restaurant in Taipei, which makes Nelson very happy.
While we eat, we discuss life, work, and Taiwan. "The Taiwanese don't know how big the world is," Nelson says. "They think Taiwan is the whole world." They sound like New Yorkers, I observe.
HOT SPRINGS I don't know why Tai- pei isn't a more popular tourist destination. Poor public relations and a dearth of decent guidebooks, possibly.
Tourists go to Singapore, yet Taipei is more interesting. It's not glamorous, but it's a big, vibrant, crowded city where you can experience both traditional and modern Chinese culture without the hassles you encounter on the mainland. As for the legendary traffic: I rode taxis during rush hours, on weekends, and on a national holiday, and found congestion no worse than anywhere else in Asia (thanks to the rapidly expanding subway system).
One of the best things about Taipei is that it's surrounded by lush, steep mountains. Early one evening, Arthur Chen, a Harvard-educated doctor and university professor, swings by my hotel in his black Mercedes and takes me to Yangmingshan, a half-hour north. The air cools as we gain altitude, and we're soon in a drizzly fog. Hot-spring resorts, where the price of a meal often buys entry into the baths, line the road. But we're headed deep inside Yangmingshan National Park, to the Hwa Yi Chuen Hot Spring, where men and women dine together but bathe in separate outdoor pools of varying degrees of heat.
On my last day in town, Arthur, Jay, and Xavier all appear at my hotel, a farewell committee, and we head into the mountains once more. This time, we drive a half-hour southeast of the city, to Mucha, an area of tea plantations and teahouses with views of Taipei. For hours we sit and chat and sip tea.
America, I tell them, you must visit America, and let me return your hospitality. Jay pours me another cup of tea. Yes, but you must come back to Taipei, he says. There are so many restaurants you haven't tried, so many places you haven't been.
Far below, the lights of the city twinkle. My head is spinning and the blood is thundering through my veins. Uh-oh. Tea drunk in Taipei again.
Where to Span
Far Eastern Plaza Hotel 201 Tun Hwa South Rd., Section 2; 800/942-5050 or 886-2/2378-8888, fax 886-2/2377-7777; www.shangri-la.com; doubles from $264.
Grand Hyatt 2 Sungshou Rd.; 800/233-1234 or 886-2/2720-1234, fax 886-2/2720-1111; www.hyatt.com; doubles from $187.
Le Petit Sherwood 370 Tun Hwa South Rd., Section 1; 886-2/2754-1166, fax 886-2/2754-3399; doubles from $152.
Sherwood Taipei 111 Min Sheng East Rd., Section 3; 800/525-4800 or 886-2/2718-1188, fax 886-2/2713-0707; www.lhw.com; doubles from $230.
Spring Resort Hotel 178 You Ya Rd., Peotou; 886-2/2897-5555, fax 886-2/2897-3333; www.springresort.com.tw; doubles from $213.
Galleries and Museums
Chang Foundation 63 Jen Ai Rd., Section 2; 886-2/2356-9575; open daily 10:30 a.m.4:30 p.m., except Mondays and the first two weeks of July.
Fine Arts Museum 181 Chungshan North Rd., Section 3; 886-2/2595-7656; www.tfam.gov.tw; open 106, closed Mondays.
I. T. Park 41, 2f I-Tong St.; 886-2/2507-7243.
National Palace Museum 221 Chih Shan Rd., Section 2, Wai-shuang-hsi; 886-2/2881-2021; www.npm.gov.tw; open 95 daily.
Shunyi Taiwan Aboriginal Museum 282 Chih Shan Rd., Section 2; 886-2/2841-2611; open 96, closed Mondays and Jan. 20Feb. 20.
Memorials, Temples, Diversions
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall 21 Chung-Shan South Rd.; 886-2/2343-1100; www.cksmh.gov.tw; open 95 daily. A huge white-marble hall with a statue of Chiang Kai-shek upstairs and a museum tracing his life below. The National Theatre, National Concert Hall, and gardens are on the grounds.
Paoan Temple 61 Hami St.; 886-2/2595-1676; www.paoan.org.tw. Taipei's oldest temple, built in 1765.
Lungshan Temple 221 Kuangchou St.; 886-2/2302-5162; open 5 a.m.10 p.m. daily. The most famous and popular temple in Taipei. Dedicated to Kuanyin, goddess of mercy. Jammed with worshipers and thick with smoke from incense. Near Snake Alley.
Snake Alley (Huahsi Night Market) Wanhua area; open 7 p.m.midnight. Long gone are the brothels that once surrounded this market (snake meat is believed to be an aphrodisiac). But the allure of snake soup and snake-bile wine lives on. Packed with tourists, but lots of fun.
Fu Yuan 17 Lin Yi St.; 886-2/2321-0289; dinner for two $150. Superb food in a handsome, traditional house.
Chung Fu Yuan 106 Why-Ning St.; 886-2/2371-4933; dinner for two $40. Popular beef noodle soup restaurant.
Shou Lan Gourmet 5-5 Lane 198, Shin-Yi Rd., Section 2; 886-2/2394-3905; dinner for two $25. Home-style mainland Chinese and Taiwanese dishes.
Dintaifung 194 Shin Yi Rd., Section 2; 886-2/2321-8927; dinner for two $25. Considered Taipei's best dumpling restaurant.
Shihlin Night Market Northwest of the Grand Hotel; best between 7 and 10 p.m. Hundreds of food stands surrounded by clothing, jewelry, and shoe stalls.