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.