Formidable Formosa

I am on my second Asian journey – this time Hong Kong and Taiwan. I guess as my trips become more frequent I’ll have less and less to say about the places I visit (to the relief of many).

I am less overwhelmed this time and even the tailors on the street corners seem to be accepting my blunt “No” without further solicitation. I travelled all over the city on the MTR (subway) and did not get lost once, but the heat still got the better of me. Now global warming might be making the sea levels rise, but with the amount of water I consumed yesterday there should be a significant downward adjustment!

I am staying in western-style hotel chains mostly because the offering is predictable. The food is generally also good and when I get in from a long journey I actually just want to eat decent food quickly and then get to sleep: after a full day of sweaty travelling adventure is not high on my menu. But even the mundane has little surprises – like finding (among the orange juice, grenadilla juice etc) on a breakfast buffet a jug of maize juice! Yup and it tastes like very cold, very sweet, sweet corn. Well why not?! There is also white guava juice and lots of dragon fruit as usual.

White guava

And funny names, crazy translations etc are just too common to be noteworthy. On virtually every sign there is something funny that is either a result of unfortunate associations,  literal translation or a whole-hearted belief that Google Translate can actually get everything right.

Just outside my hotel is a famous chain of jewellers called LukFook and, judging by their merchandise it is a very appropriate name. On the way to the airport I saw Go Lik Concrete and passed a truck carrying refrigerated fruit with the name Harmonic Health along the side, and so I could carry on interminably.

Love River at night

Go on, admit it. You’ve never heard of Kaohsiung (pronounced “Gowshoong”). Unless you’re an absolute dweeb that got a AAA in geography no one knows that this is Taiwan’s second city. Based on the lower tip of the island is it a 50-minute flight from Hong Kong and what a great way to be introduced to this country!

Broad clean streets – with additional two-lane roads exclusively for scooters and bikes. And here the streets are perfectly maintained and the people (or at least the adults!) wear crash helmets. The kids that travel with their parents on scooters do so at their own risk.

Love River early in the morning

I think this is what China could be like in 20 years time. It is Asia with controlled capitalism but with rigorous management of resources and equally earnest promotion of entrepreneurs. The number of great brands that are actually Taiwanese as opposed to Chinese is impressive. Consider Acer, Asus, BenQ, Mustek and Tatung (computers), D-Link and Transcend (electronics and peripherals), Giant and Merida (bicycles), HTC (smartphones), to name a few.

Kaohsiung Museum of History: Previously the Mayor's office.

Kaohsiung is the industrial capital and many of these branded products are actually manufactured here. It is the largest port because of its protected, deep water harbour.

In my pre-breakfast constitutional this morning I took a circular walk around the hotel along the Love River.

The hotel is an older, 5-star establishment called the Ambassador. An intriguing blend of traditional and modern. It’s room doors still have keys, not smart cards. You can leave the lights on in the room when you leave. But the its claim to fame, and probably that of Kaohsiung in general is the electric toilet.

Electric Chair

Yes, my friends, this is a marvel of technology. Gone are the days where one’s natural urges were discreet – now it is time for entertainment. As you can see the loo is now a hi-tech object, complete with a heated seat, a built-in bidet, a choice of water jets for “cleansing” (and even an option to have pulsating jets in the bidet) and the option for air drying (!!) Oh, and it flushes too. One definitely needs a license to operate it and I would suggest a seatbelt before attempting this for the first time. I shudder to think of the proctologist’s bill if Etienne were ever to start playing with this loo.

Terrifying control panel

Relieving explanation

For the rest the hotel was fine in terms of friendliness and service. The food was great but there was one serious draw-back: clearly they were very clever when constructing it because they sourced their masonry and their mattresses from the same brick factory. This is “firm” taken to the extreme. Fall on to the bed and you’ll need a physio to get up.

Holy Rosary Cathedral

My walk also took me past an astounding church called the Holy Rosary Cathedral. It is really quite beautiful but not quite as big as one would expect of a cathedral. Because I was hot a sweaty from my rigorous walk I did not step inside so this is a web pic.

Inside Holy Rosary

In Chinese culture it is OK to stare, and I guess I am quite an unusual sight in this part of town. So in my walk there were several stares, one dropping jaw but mostly friendly waves and greetings. Very friendly people in general and a lot more cheerful than their mainland counterparts.

I am also surprised by the amount of English spoken. Almost everyone can get by with a basic phrase or two – a lot better than my very stilted Mandarin.

From Kaohsiung to the capital and the largest city – Taipei. A two-hour northward journey by high-speed train. It is older, more congested, with little alleys compared to the broad boulevards of Kaohsiung. It also has some of the most magnificent buildings I have seen in Asia.

Potted history of China/Taiwan: Island off the coast of China, inhabited by aboriginal tribes mostly of Polynesian descent. The Chinese start occupying it (around 1400) and quickly get the better of the locals, driving them into the hills. Today aboriginals make up 2% of the population. Wave after wave of Chinese come aboard, mostly from the closest part of China namely Fujian province. The next phase of invaders consists of the Japanese. They occupy the island at about the same time as they colonise the northern part of mainland China.

Back on the mainland in 1911 the Ching dynasty (which dates back to 1644) is coming to an end with the boy emperor, Puyi (the last of the Manchus). The republicans under Chiang Kai Shek (CKS) depose him and he becomes a puppet emperor under Japanese rule and lives a charmed life of luxury at the end of a Japanese string in a fictitious state in northern China.

The decorative gate of the National Chiang Kai Shek Memorial

The war ends with a Japanese defeat which spells victory for CKS and the republic is about to be thoroughly entrenched when the communist Red Army under Mao Zedong start gaining support and the resulting civil war starts turning against the republicans. By 1949 the writing is on the wall and CKS and his entire entourage as well as all the people sympathetic to the republican cause and those who oppose the communists flee mainland China. They get on planes and ships and head for the island of Taiwan which has a population of about 2 million. Within 4 years it has a population of 6 million. The aborigines have been dominated in turn by the Fujians, the Japanese and now by the republicans. The Fujians themselves become second-class citizens as CKS sets up government here. He brings with him much of the government wealth, many national treasures and a working government system. (As an aside the boy emperor had it good under the Japanese, gets imprisoned by the communists and ends his days as a lowly gardener. It is a great story poignantly told by Bernardo Bertolucci in “The Last Emperor” – see it).

National Palace Museum

While claiming to be the rightful government of China CKS and his Kuomintang (KMT) party quickly convert the sleepy island into an industrial giant with the support of the West who are eager to form a bulwark against the rising tide of communism. China declines financially under communism but its wealth is redistributed. Taiwan flourishes as a one-party, capitalist dictatorship. Slowly China gains ascendency and by the 1980s most western governments have started turning their backs on Taiwan (politically and diplomatically) in favour of mainland China. Within a short space of time Taiwan is entirely isolated and relies solely on its industrial relations to keep links alive with other nations.

At the entrance of the museum - look at the size compared to the person in the background

Relations between the island and he mainland have always been tense because the KMT under CKS insists that it is the legitimate government of the whole of China. After his death there is a softening of attitudes and two parties operate in the legislature: the KMT believes that one day there will be a reunification of the two Chinas. The DPP believes that Taiwan can survive as an independent island nation in the same pattern as Singapore and (sort of) Hong Kong. When the first DPP president is elected and the talk of separation becomes loud and frequent, China lobs a few nuclear missiles over the island and into the Pacific as a warning shot. People flee and emigrate at an unprecedented rate. The KMT comes back into power and things settle down again. Next year is the next election and it is going to be a very close race. In the meantime links between the mainland and Taiwan have been re-established with frequent flights and lots of mutual trade and tourism.

In the train I could see a non-stop strip of urban development interspersed with very intense agriculture. The island is probably entirely self-sustaining in terms of food production even though fully half of it is too mountainous to be cultivated.

The museums are spectacular and the wealth brought over from the mainland are proudly displayed.

My host (from the New Zealand Ministry of Trade and Enterprise) took me to a little dumpling restaurant after our morning’s business and I was treated to prawn and pork dumplings, fried tofu, crispy fried anchovy-sized fish, and beef wrapped in pancakes. Totally delicious. he did warn me about avoiding the local delicacy – fermented tofu. This is a euphemism for rotten beans. The curd is left to soak in water for 12 days and the smell is dreadful and fills the tiny eating place. The worse the smell the more appealing it is for the locals. Like a really ripe gorgonzola, I guess.

This follows on a meal I had last night which was an eight-course set menu including many interesting delights: poached mixed vegetables with a lily bulb, baked prawns with a curry sauce, and a sweet bean soup for desert! The waitress took one look at how I man-handled a slippery mushroom with my chop-sticks and very graciously brought me a set of cutlery with which to shell the curried prawns.

The hotel is crowded with an international Cryotherapy conference so it is very noisy and finding a table at breakfast was a challenge. But at least the mattress is a little softer, less like granite, more like sandstone…

Taiwan is claimed to have the largest ratio of scooters to people in the world and driving through the city in morning rush hour this becomes obvious. Scooters are to Taiwan as sheep are to New Zealand. They are all less than 150cc and there are gazillions of them. I’m not sure how you would recognise which one is yours – they are all so very similar.

Leaving Taiwan is a great experience too – Taipei airport is almost an hour’s drive out of the city but what a lovely airport it is – possibly one of the best I have seen. Not nearly as big and imposing as HK, Singapore etc but where else have you heard of special displays and shops for local handicraft of the aboriginal people, a showcase of all the recently patented hi-tech goods that are not yet commercially available (but soon will be) and a huge display of Taiwan’s prize orchids! Now that is a change from the relentless luxury brands which usually clog an airport.

And the final word in this inexcusably verbose blog goes to the biggest children’s brand in Asia and it is for once NOT Disney…

Goodbye Disney

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