Taiwan and Taipei Visit (Part One)
Taipei Travel Blog› entry 5 of 7 › view all entries
This was my first trip to Taiwan.
A trip that when I heard I was going, I was very excited about. As, although you hear bits and pieces about Taiwan as it drifts in and out of the news every now and then, I realized that other than a broad understanding of the history and its very tense relationship with China, I knew very little about what it was like as a country – and what Taipei was going to be like as a capital city.
I read before I went that it was originally called Formosa, from the Portuguese word meaning “beautiful”. The Portuguese came across the 245 miles long and 89 miles wide island in the 16th Century, and were awed by the island’s steep mountains covered with very green and lush subtropical vegetation.
In my mind I imagined Taiwan today to now be a bit like a mix of Hong Kong and Singapore. I knew that Taiwan was a successful industrial country, with a reputation for hi-tech products like micro-chips and semi-conductors (not that I actually know what either of those do other than they are technical and are really important to make computers work fast!). In my mind I had a really strong view that Taipei would be like the big successes of the Far East like Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore and full of dazzlingly stylish and very modern skyscrapers and it would be bright and full of neon and energy at night.
As I was on the flight there though that it first struck me that I had no actual reference for the image of what I imagined that it was going to be like.
It, therefore, took me a few days to overcome my disappointment at how functional and even dated and slightly run down looking Taipei was. And only then did I come to really appreciate the city for what it was, and managed to uncover some of the energy and resolve that makes Taiwan what it is today, despite the constant threat it faces from China.
Large parts of the city seem almost rundown and shabby, with very ordinary and uninspiring buildings crammed tightly together.
I feel that this approach is typical of Taiwan and what makes it unique and different.
Taiwanese people are more interested in ideas and in making things happen now and today, while the forces behind other rapid and fast growing cities like Shanghai are more driven by a “grand plan” and in the showcase and prestige that modern glitzy buildings offer, bulldozing down the old to make way for the new. In Taipei they seem to fill the old with the new.
It also seemed to make sense to me as I thought about and read more about the history of the island. It has a very strategic location just off 200 kilometers off the coast of China lying South of Japan and north of the Philippines. And, it seems to have basically been occupied or controlled in some form or fashion all of its life by an array of people that including the Portuguese, Japanese, the Dutch and the China Ming Dynasty.
Its more recent history being driven by events just after the 2nd World War in 1949, when there was civil war in China and the non-communist side called the KMT (Kuomintang) led by Chiang Kai-Shek, was losing to the Communists and so they fled from Mainland China and established themselves in Taiwan. A staggering 1.3 million people, mostly soldiers, KMT party members and wealthy people from Mainland China, fled and swamped the island. A military dictatorship was established under KMT as the Republic of China. In fact during the Cold War, most Western Countries recognized Taiwan as the “official” and legitimate government of China. This all changed as the major Western Powers started to court China.
All its recent life the country must have felt under threat, which it has been, and so it seems that as establishing themselves and protecting themselves had higher priority than grand designs and flashy buildings. Functionality was the key. This is what Taipei looks and feels like to me. But underneath all that is a very innovative and creative population.