Taiwan: Everyday Life

4 12 2008

Whenever I think of Taiwan, certain images pop up for me – people, places, scenes, and of course food. These memories all hold meaning for me and represent the essence of Taiwan in my eyes. Even though I only spent the first few years of my life there, Taiwan still draws me back time and again. It’s not the touristy must-sees that make Taiwan special to me, although I love seeing them too. From the bustling city to the crickets chirping in the countryside, the street stands to the corner convenience store, and my childhood to now, I love the experience of being in Taiwan.

A street in Tianwei, Taiwan.

In the picture above, an old house made in the traditional Chinese style stands in between two residences made from cement and corrugated metal in a tiny town outside of Changhua.  This kind of juxtaposition is played out in towns and cities all over Taiwan. While it’s obvious that no one lives in the house pictured above anymore, it’s not quite abandoned as evidenced by the plants decorating the front. Since this house is situated on the block that has been occupied by my extended family for hundreds of years, it probably belongs to a relative.

Below is another scene that is typical in the countryside in Central Taiwan.

A roadside scene in Central Taiwan.

A small truck sits next to a rusty shed surrounded by a field of crops and some tropical plants. At first glance, this is pretty ordinary. If you look more closely, however, you notice that the driver left the door to the truck open and there is wild dragonfruit growing all along the rusty shed.  You can also see a gutter running next to the shed.

The rusty shed.

To me, this scene is so Taiwanese in so many ways.  The driver was either in a hurry, or left his door open to air out the front of the truck since it’s so hot and humid.  Since everyone knows each other out here in the middle of nowhere, he is unconcerned about leaving his truck unlocked.  The shed is rusty because Taiwan is so wet that nothing that is metal remains pristine.  The phone numbers on the side of the shed are numbers you should call if something is wrong with the field or shed.  You have to be careful driving on the tiny narrow lanes in this town because they are surrounded on both sides by gutters for the rain.

Wild dragonfruit growing on the side of the shed.  It was close enough to the side of the road you could lean over the gutter and pluck it once it’s ripe.

From the countryside we move onto the big city. I am not talking about Taipei, the northern capital, but Kaohsiung, the second city in the south. Whenever I tell other Taiwanese that I am from Kaohsiung, they are usually quite surprised. You see, most Taiwanese who immigrate to the the US are from the richer, more westernized city of Taipei. It’s almost unheard of to be from anywhere outside of Taipei, even Kaohsiung. It is true that not many people can speak English in Kaohsiung and it’s full of independence minded citizens, but it is hardly as unsophisticated or backwater as some believe. In fact, over the last few years Kaohsiung has come into a renaissance with the reclamation and transformation of the Love River (Ai He), the building of its own Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, and the revitalization of many parts of downtown.

But I digress. Why do I love visiting Kaohsiung? Besides the fact that the other side of my family lives here, Kaohsiung has all the big city fun and convenience of Taipei without the glitz and pressure to impress. I love Asian cities and while I do appreciate the very largest cities like Taipei, Tokyo, and Singapore, sometimes I just want to experience a city without all the fuss.  In other cities, I am a tourist because of all the must-sees and must-dos.  In Kaohsiung, I get to be a local.

I can go out on a night on the town with my aunts.  A night out in Kaohsiung might include shopping, eating out, KTV, or a night market. There are fun things to do 24 hours a day.

Notice I sneaked a photo of KFC into this post.

What is Taiwan without my favorite cold treat – shaved ice!

This particular stand was as big as a movie theater. Air conditioned too!

I can go to the market with my aunt:

The fish at this stand were really fresh – they were still flapping around on the ice block!

I can go shopping for household goods with my other aunt.  Here we went to Hola, the Bed Bath & Beyond of Taiwan. This may not seem very exciting to some, but I love finding household gadgets that I cannot get in the US, like fold-able travel chopsticks, a chopstick stand, a cute soy sauce dispenser, and rice bowls. In the US, you have buy from the slim picking of the Asian grocery store.

A small shopping center for household goods and furniture in Kaohsiung.

As you can see, it looks exactly like a Bed Bath & Beyond or the soon to be defunct Linens N Things.

On the way home, we can stop by and buy some raw sugarcane to snack on. Here the old lady cuts off the hard shell of the sugarcane with a machete.

Finally, we get back to my aunt’s place and we can enjoy some the fruits of our labor at the market. My absolute favorite part of Taiwan is definitely the fresh fruit you cannot find anywhere else (outside of Asia).  This and chatting and catching up with my aunts and cousins are pretty much the best parts of visiting Taiwan.

Clockwise from top: Custard Fruit (shik kwia), Apple Pears (len mu), raw sugarcane (gum jia).  These are seasonal fruits that are found in October.

Green oranges, which are actually sweet.

What do I definitely not like about Taiwan?  The huge tropical insects.  I saw this gigantic spider in the bathroom of my grandparents’ house.  Luckily it was so huge I could keep an eye on it.  <shudder>

Despite my fondness of Taiwan, I know my view of daily life here is idealistic since I don’t actually live here.  I’m sure that if I did live in Taiwan, I would find plenty of things that annoy me.  It’s a fact that the standard of living in Taiwan is lower than the United States and I don’t know if I could actually deal with this in my adulthood, not to mention the pressures of living in a Taiwanese society.  Despite these thoughts, I will always have good memories of the visits to the country of my birth.


Singapore: Diversity through Food

31 10 2008

While I was in Singapore, my friend P sought to expose me to all different quintessentially Singaporean foods.  The best and most direct way to understand a culture is often through its food.  Reflecting its diverse Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultural heritage, in Singapore fusion is the rule and ethnic variations of the same dish are very common.  Even in restaurants that specialize in certain cuisines, the local Singaporean flavor can often be tasted. Spices are are used more regularly and with higher complexity and curry use is common.

Knowing me very well, the very first place P took me when I arrived in Singapore was to a food hall, where I had a delicious Chinese fish ball soup with spicy noodles.

Chinese Fish Ball Soup

Spicy Dry Noodles

Although the soup and noodles were very Chinese, they tasted different to me.  I could tell even from the first taste that the people of Singapore take their spices very seriously.  The spices in the soup were much more complex and spicy hot than I was accustomed to in typical Chinese cooking.

For brunch the next morning, we visited another coffee shop/food court.  In Singapore, these food courts are abundant and are called coffee shops.  I don’t know why, as it didn’t look a bit like a Starbucks.  LOL!

As you can tell from the different signs, the choices were many and reflected the cultural diversity of the city state.

The stands in the photo below include: Chicken Rice, Vegetarian, Noodle Village, and Local Delight.

The Indian Muslim stand is just across from the Tim Sum (dim sum) stand.

Dessert stand featuring Chinese, Malaysian, and other southeast asian varieties of cool, light refreshment.

Chinese inspired food.

P and P’s mom ordered for all three of us and it was delicious!  We had a combination of Hokkien and Indian food for breakfast.  Hokkien is a Chinese dialect that originated in the Fujian Province of China.  It is equivalent to Taiwanese and is also common in many overseas Chinese communities in southeast Asia.

Hokkien Bee Hoon (mifen in mandarin) with fried bean curd and sauteed vegetables.

The famous Roti Prata (Indian).

Hokkien Chwee Kway is a steamed rice cake topped with preserved radish.

On the day after, we had dim sum for brunch.  This meal was much more traditionally Cantonese, of course.  While I’ve never had dim sum in Hong Kong or Canton, it was at least very similar to the best dim sum I’ve had in the United States.

Shu mai and steamed shrimp dumplings

The dessert cart

That night, after spending a few hours in Little India, we had dinner at an Indian restaurant.  I have always loved Indian food, but I felt that this food was much more intense and flavorful than usual.  Yum!

The wonderful menu made me drool.

Nasi briyani with mutton.

I forget what this dish is called, but it was a flat bread stuffed with a spicy paste that you dip in three kinds of curry.

We also had some chicken masala and topped off our meal with a mango shake.  Perfect!

On my last day, we had brunch at another coffee shop near a mall, where I had some more Malaysian flavors, including the famous Laksa.

The menu at the Malaysian food stand.

My delicious and spicy Laksa.

Mee Siam


My culinary journey through Singapore really opened my eyes (and teared them up too!) about the many cultural influences in this interesting country.  As a souvenir, I brought home a couple spice packets for Singapore’s famous bak kut teh and can’t wait to make it!

Singapore: A Complex City State

30 10 2008

I am just back from a weekend spent with my friend and former coworker P in the lovely country of Singapore. I was in Taiwan visiting relatives and wanted to see P so I booked a flight on the budget airline Jetstar, which has direct flights from Taipei to Singapore daily.

A view of Singapore from the plane.

Downtown Singapore is very westernized and skyscrapers are a common sight.

Although it’s mostly known these days as a major Asian business center, to me Singapore is still an exotic locale. For one thing, I have never been so close to the equator; Singapore is only 1 degree north of the equator and you can feel it. I thought southern Taiwan, being south of the Tropic of Cancer, was hot and humid. It is nothing compared to the heat and humidity of Singapore. It is like walking into a hot and spicy soup. Thus it is unsurprising that people are dressed very casually here – it’s just too hot to wear too many clothes.

Singapore is definitely in the tropics.

Singapore is also a fascinatingly diverse country that is made up of a mixture of Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultures with a little bit of British thrown into the lot.  One of the things I like best about Singapore is that it is a nation of juxtapositions, where traditional and varied Asian cultures can meld with western technology.  It is its very complexity that makes it strong and interesting.

Singapore was actually a lot less British than I expected, despite the fact that it was a British colony for over a hundred years. I’m not saying that the British did not leave a mark, because they certainly did with English being the official language, the government and infrastructure having been guided by the British colonial system, and the smatterings of colonial architecture evident in the various ministries and historic hotels.

A ministry of some sort.

Although the population is 75% Chinese, 14% Malay, and 9% Indian, the city-state was also much less Chinese than I expected. Perhaps it’s just the places I visited in Singapore, but based on knowing countries like Japan, Taiwan, and China (regionally), where the population and culture is very homogeneous, Singapore was not dominated by Chinese culture.  For example, Chinatown is very small in Singapore, despite the large ethnic Chinese population.

The bright rehabilitated buildings of Chinatown.

Hawker stands in Chinatown.

Chinatown is only a few blocks wide in Singapore, and located right downtown.

Some may say that it’s because it’s Chinatown everywhere in Singapore, but I do not find it so.  There is certainly Chinese influence in the architecture on the island, but I felt that the western and southeast asian aesthetics were more dominant. In addition, there seemed to be a great movement for integration of the different ethnic groups under the overall larger umbrella of Singaporeans.

Perhaps the Chinese-ness of Singapore is deeper than I can detect as a visitor.  I know for a fact that my friend P has grown up in a very traditional Chinese household in many respects.  In addition, her English is littered with Chinese, as is common in Singlish (Singaporean English).   She has also told me in the past that many people in the older generations are more comfortable speaking Chinese.  She has even mentioned that there are some/many Singaporean Indians who can speak Chinese, which I thought was really cool.  Maybe the Chinese influence in Singapore is so deep that it is not immediately apparent because it has so seamlessly integrated into everything here.  In any case, observing the different cultural influences on Singapore has been one of the most interesting parts of visiting, in my opinion.

Instead, from my very unscientific assessment, Singapore is a mixture of its cultures, with the Southeast Asian influence among the strongest. Where does my evidence come from? The food.  Just take a look at any of the many food halls, coffee shops, and hawker centers.  In most of these places, there is an equal representation of Chinese, Malay, and Indian food and its variations.  Chinese Indian, Chinese Malay, Vegetarian Indian or Chinese, and Halal Chinese are just a few examples of the fusion cuisine common in Singapore.

A coffee shop near Pasir Ris.

Further reflecting that cultural complexity, Singapore is also very westernized and boasts a highly developed economy.  Since separating from the UK, joining Malaysia, and seceding to form its own nation, Singapore has turned its lack of natural resources into a positive and is now the 6th wealthiest nation per capita in the world.  Because of its small relative size, from the beginning of its independence the Singapore government has focused on industrializing of its economy and attracting direct foreign investment.  This led to the establishment in the latter half of the 20th century of a modern economy based on electronics manufacturing, trade, petrochemicals, tourism, and financial services.

The famous Merlion – the symbol of Singapore.

Merlion Square

View of the Esplanade, aka the Durian.

On the whole, the streets of Singapore are very clean and neat.  This is probably due to the fact that there is a $1000 Sing Dollar fine for littering.  Buying and selling chewing gum is also strictly prohibited, although the actual act of chewing gum is ok.  Because of this, a lot of gum is brought into the country by individuals.  Unlike Japan, where a rigid social structure keeps things neat and tiday, in Singapore cleanliness and tidiness is reinforced by a system of fines.  While this is very different from the American system, most of these fines and rules only serve to encourage civil behavior and discourage unruly behavior.

Unrefurbished streets are rarer these days in Singapore. Here is a part of the older part of town, which has not yet been overhauled and cleaned up.

Next: Singapore Part 2: Food

Germany: Munich

8 10 2008

A vacation to Germany is not complete without the obligatory tour of Munich (München), the capital of Bavaria.  To many Americans, just the mention of Munich conjures up images of beer, pretzels, bratwurst, and of course Oktoberfest, the beer drinker’s paradise.

Touristy shops abound in Munich, selling all of kinds of beer drinking paraphernalia.

We saw this display at a local department store. There were racks of traditional Bavarian costumes so that locals and visitors alike could dress up, presumably for Oktoberfest.

The must see on every beer drinker’s itinerary – the Hofbrauhaus!

Of course, Munich is much more than just Oktoberfest. Among other things, it was the center of the German counter reformation, a victim of the Bubonic plague, home to many of the most famous composers of all time, and a stronghold for Nazis during WWII. It is well known that much of the city was heavily bombed during WWII and the people chose to have the old city rebuilt as it was before the war. Today, Munich is politically liberal within the largely conservative state of Bavaria.

We began our tour of Munich at Karlsplatz, where we strolled under the Karlstor and into the pedestrian friendly old city center.


This is the view inside the pedestrian only zone looking back at Karlstor after passing through.

We were able to see the domes of the Frauenkirche.

After strolling down the Neuhausen Strasse, we headed to the Viktualienmarkt for lunch. The Viktualienmarkt is a farmer’s market that has gone gourmet. Stalls selling honey, cheese, flowers, herbs, and other victuals/foodstuffs are surrounded by dozens of bratwurst stands and ready seating.

Huge wheels of cheese.

I think this stand sells herbs.

All kinds of flowers for the back garden.

The Maypole of Munich.

We decided to eat lunch at this bratwurst stand (see below).  While my sister and I saved some seats at a long table, the men stood in line to buy our food.  We had some delicious bratwurst and fried potatoes accompanied by locally brewed apple soda.  While we were eating, we chatted with some friendly locals who were sharing our table.  This is very normal in Germany, especially in Munich, which is known for its friendly citizens.

Bratwurst for lunch!

After lunch, we walked over to the famous Marienplatz. Like many old city centers, Marienplatz has a famous glockenspiel in the Rathaus. The architecture here was beautiful!

In the Marienplatz, with a view of the Rathaus Glockenspiel and the Marian Column.

A tavern near the Marienplatz

Near the Rathaus in Marienplatz is Alois Dallmayr, the most famous delicatessen and food hall in Germany. This upscale food haven has supplied royal courts throughout Europe and inspired many like concepts across the world.  Seeing these displays reminded me of the deli inside Whole Foods in the US and the food halls in the basement of Japanese department stores such as Isetan.

Alois Dallmayr, a royal purveyor of foodstuffs.

Part of the elaborate window display.

There’s a bakery.

The freshly ground gourmet coffee section.

This was the most gourmet supermarket I’ve ever seen and heaven for foodies.

After our walk, we decided that we deserved a reward so we made our next stop the Hofbrauhaus. The mecca of beer drinkers everywhere, be forewarned that this is on every tourist’s itinerary.

Once we entered the Hofbrauhaus, we wandered about looking for the actual beer hall since this place was HUGE! We found some stairs and went up to see what was upstairs.

The large gothic stone stairs.

The painted ceiling on top of the stairwell features was very Bavarian, with the flags and the pretzels and the beer wench.

We found this private beer hall reminiscent of being inside a Viking ship.

After we went back downstairs, we went towards the noise and finally found the beer hall. Surprisingly there were not too many people there.

That’s because everyone was out in the beer garden! We grabbed a table and sat down to enjoy.

The Hofbrauhaus is so patriotic, even the fountain in the beer garden has the Munich shield on it.

You can request an English menu, although they will probably just automatically give it to you.

Thankfully for me, there was a section in the menu for non-alcoholics.

After finishing up at the Hofbrauhaus, we headed over to the Residenz, the former royal palace of the Bavarian kings. It had started raining so we only looked at this area briefly.

Right outside the Residenz were these streets and this monument.

We had planned to go to the English Garden at this time, but it was pouring rain so we decided to skip it this time around. If you do plan to go to the English Garden, the Chinese pagoda was highly recommended to us and the beer garden.

Although Munich can be classified as a must-see because of its place in Bavarian history and culture, in many ways it felt like any other European big city. We saw high end shopping streets, expensive gourmet food stores, large palaces and grand monuments, and other places that make the city very cosmopolitan and a great place to live and work but not necessarily the best place to really experience the German way of life. Despite this thought, however, we still very much enjoyed our time in Munich and recommend it to all visitors to Germany.

Recipe: How to Make Zongzi, Part 2

6 06 2008

The hardest part of making traditional Chinese zongzi is the assembly. Each family has a slightly different way of making zongzi, which come in a handful of different shapes and sizes. In my family, we prefer to make zongzi in the triangular style popular in Taiwan.

This post is Part 2 of How to Make Zongzi. Click here for part 1.


Below are all the ingredients we have prepared that will be wrapped into the zongzi I know and love.

First, you need to hook the looped end of the cotton string onto a hook where your zongzi will hang once assembled.

Now comes the actual assembly. I was going to take pictures of the process step by step, but it is so complicated it is much easier to just make a video.

My mom makes the assembly look easy, but it took me several tries before I could even make it to the string!

When you have used all the strings to make a dozen, steam for 45 minutes. Repeat for second batch.

Once the zongzi have finished steaming, you can FINALLY enjoy one of these delicious delicacies. Kai Fan!

In Taiwan, zongzi are traditionally eaten with mushroom oyster sauce and topped with ground peanuts.

Copyright (R) Travels with Sandy

Lukang, Part 3

26 10 2007

We wrapped up our visit to Lukang with two Taiwan Living Heritage Artist shops, shrimp monkeys in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and a quick peek at Tianhou Temple.

The main north-south artery that runs through the historic part of Lukang is Jhongshan Road.  On the southern end of Jhongshan Road are the Martial Temple, Wenchang Temple, and Wenkai Academy.  Longshan Temple is also in the southern section of the historic center on Sanmin Road, which is perpendicular to Jhongshan Road.   Meanwhile, the entrance to the cleaned up part of 9-Turns Lane is just off Jhongshan Road on Sinsheng Road north of Longshan Temple.  Tianhou Temple caps off the northern end of historic Lukang and Jhongshan Road.

The first place we visited, at 312 Jhongshan Road, was Master Wu Dun-Hou’s Folk Lantern shop.

I wanted to buy one of the lanterns displayed outside (shown below) but my mom laughed because most of these lanterns were run of the mill lanterns for restaurants, and say things like “fried noodles” or “fish” on them.

Folk Lantern Shop - Lukang

Master Wu Dun-Hou is a renowned creator of traditional Chinese lanterns who is one of the winners of the Living Heritage Awards in Taiwan.  The Living Heritage Awards are given by the Ministry of Education to recognize Taiwan’s top craftsmen.  Lukang is unique in that it claims 6 Living Heritage craftsmen, the most of any city in Taiwan.

Master Wu Dun-Hou

Master Wu has been making lanterns in the traditional way for over sixty years and has devoted his life to developing and passing down this traditional art form.

Folk Lanterns - Lukang

Although Master Wu was not there when we visited, we met one of the artisans who told us about the lanterns.  Most of the lanterns are still hand painted, but some of the smaller, cheaper lanterns are partially printed and finished off by the artisans.  The lanterns inside the store are more suitable for inside the home, unlike the ones displayed outside!  When you purchase a lantern, you can pick an auspicious saying that they will paint on the lanterns for you.  You can then pick them up in about an hour.

Amidst dozens of lanterns are the artist’s paint brushes:

Folk Lantern Artist Tools

We got the yellow lantern with the dragon in the bottom right hand corner of the photo above.

After the lantern shop, we walked up Jhongshan Road to the Tianhou Temple area to eat lunch.  There is a small square outside the temple with dozens of food stands, tea shops, and restaurants.

Lukang - Main Square

Main Square

Like most tourist destinations in Taiwan, Lukang has a bunch of local food specialties. They include oyster omelettes, deep fried oyster cakes, shrimp monkeys (fried mud shrimp), ox-tongue cake, and steamed port buns.

We had oyster omelette and shrimp monkeys for lunch.  Honestly, we were not too impressed with the food here.  It could just be this restaurant, though, which was a little too hole-in-the-wall for our taste, if you know what I mean.
Shrimp Monkeys (Fried Mud Shrimp)

Shrimp Monkeys

Since it started raining again, we were only able to catch a quick outside glimpse of Tianhou Temple.

Tianhou Temple

Tianhou Temple

Our last stop of the day was at another Living Heritage shop called the Divine Woodcarving Shop.  I didn’t realize until we found the shop that its name was literal.  This shop carves religious statues for temples around the island.  It was just past Tianhou Temple on 655 Fusing Road, but it was difficult to spot because it looked like the living room of someone’s house.  One of the master carvers was hard at work carving, but I didn’t want to disturb him.  He was shy about pictures, but let me photograph the wood carvings on display.

Heavenly Carvings

We had to end our trip to Lukang at this point because it started pouring rain.  I would have really liked to see some more sights though!  I think we missed some good stuff.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Craig Ferguson, a photo blogger, did a great series on Lukang with beautiful pictures (on a very sunny day!).

Wandering in Lugang, Part 1

Wandering in Lugang, Part 2

Wandering in Lugang, Part 3

Where to go, what to see in Taiwan

3 09 2007

As I finish up reading all the guidebooks I bought for Taiwan (which, I know is overboard for one trip but this is my hobby), I keep wishing we could stay a few more days so that we can see more of Taiwan. Unfortunately, due to limitations to my vacation time, we can only go for about 1.5 weeks. I plan on going back again, as a lot of my relatives still live in Taiwan, but it will be several years at least.

Here are the places we are planning to visit in Taiwan:

Taipei – 2.5 to 3 days
Jiufen/Jingguashi – 1 day
Hualien/Taroko Gorge – 1 day
Lukang – 0.5 day
Kaohsiung – rest of trip
Night Markets

TAIPEI – Longshan Temple and the surrounding Wanhua district, National Palace Museum, Taipei 101, Ximending

Taipei 101
Photocredit: Alton Thompson under GNU

Taipei 101

Longshan Temple
Photocredit: de:Benutzer:HJS65 under GNU

Longshan Temple

Ximending, Taiwan’s answer to Shibuya (Tokyo, Japan)
Photocredit: Diego Trazzi under GNU

Ximending at Night


Photocredit: This image has been released into the public domain by its creator, Kwb.


Photocredit: Allen Timothy Chang under GNU

Taroko Gorge

Todd did a great post on his visit to Hualien last year, with some gorgeous pictures.

Photocredit: Flora / Prattflora

Matzu Temple

Matzu Temple 2

Check out Craig’s beautiful 3 part photo series on Lugang.

Kaohsiung – Visiting family, shopping, Ai He

Liu He Night Market
Photocredit: Henry Trotter, 2003

Liuho Night Market

Night Markets – In Kaoshiung, we are definitely going to Liu He 2nd Street Night Market. In Taipei, we are probably going to Shilin Night Market and the one next to Longshan Temple since we will be there already. I want to have the famous Ai Yu (Ay Yuh). I don’t know which night market is the best one in Taipei.

Readers, which night market is your favorite?

Holly has an interesting post about Shida’s night market this week.

We have figured out that we need to eat every two hours in order to try all the food that I want. I know it will be a challenge, but I am willing to sacrifice myself to do that. On Prince Roy‘s recommendation, I will NOT try the egg drop corn soup from McDonald’s, as cool as it sounds that McD’s actually sells this soup.

Guidebook Update and Taiwan History

31 08 2007

It has been a while since my last post, so I apologize to my (three) regular viewers.  I have been busy with work, houseguests, and of course, continuing to get ready for our trip to Taiwan.

I have been reading two new Taiwan guidebooks – Insight Guide Taiwan and The Rough Guide to Taiwan – over the last couple of weeks.  I am more than halfway through Insight Guide and it’s actually a very interesting read.  While not as useful as other guidebooks for hotel and restaurant recommendations and for “on the ground” use while traveling, the book provides a great general overview of the history, culture, and traditions of Taiwan and offers a glimpse into modern Taiwan life.  In addition, the book is full of wonderful photos that are helpful for deciding which places to visit.  I would recommend it as a supplement to a solid guidebook such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.  Basically, the guide is more like a reference book for Taiwan than a guidebook.

I also found an interesting new blog called Jeff’s Taiwan that offers thoughts and insights into the history that can be found all over Taiwan.  His most recent entry is about the Sino-French war in the 1880s in Keelung.  The blog is well-written and organized, and includes some interesting maps, illustrations, and photos.  I also like it because it shows that there is history in Taiwan outside of the events that happened in the 1940s.  Jeff plans to blog mainly on hiking, historical sites, and flora.

Spirited Away to Jiufen

8 08 2007

It’s not secret that I am a big Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki fan. I grew up watching such classics as My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, and Gauche the Cellist in Japanese with Chinese subtitles (meaning I couldn’t understand a word), so I appreciated the art of Studio Ghibli before I understood the storylines. My interest grew when I finally got my hands on Japanese versions with English subtitles.

Studio Ghibli logo

How can anyone not fall for such a cute and furry character?

So imagine my surprise and delight when I found out that Jiufen, a village located on the northeast coast of Taiwan, was one of the inspirations for the village in Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi). Apparently Mr. Miyasaki visited the little village on a mountain and was charmed by it. There is even a teahouse set in the mountain that features masks similar to the ambiguous black robed spirit (No Face) with a mask in the movie.

Here’s a movie poster for Spirited Away:

Spirited Away Movie Poster

Here is a picture of Jiufen at night.


What do you think?

According to Wikipedia, Jiufen was a gold mining town that reached its peak under the time of Japanese rule in Taiwan. After the gold was exhausted, interest in this town declined significantly. Since the town was largely forgotten except by those living there, it is a well preserved example of a mountain town under Japanese colonization. The town was “rediscovered” as a tourist destination after it was featured in a movie called “City of Sadness” that was released in 1989.

We are planning to visit Jiufen along with Lukang, another preserved historic village, on our Taiwan visit. I’m not just visiting it for the Studio Ghibli tie-in, don’t worry. It is supposed to be a very quaint town with lots of specialty foods set in a beautiful mountain overlooking the ocean. I will report back with my thoughts after I see it with my own eyes!

Why Taiwan?

8 08 2007

With so many countries and places to visit to experience Chinese culture, this is a question that comes up quite a lot when I am talking to friends about visiting Taiwan.  Obviously I have a very compelling reason to go myself because of my roots, but I believe that Taiwan is worthwhile to visit even if you do not have relatives or business interests on the island.

I think Cindy Loose of the Washington Post received the best answer when she asked this very question in an article she wrote on Taiwan in 2004 (“And Now, Taiwan“, March 14, 2004, Washington Post Travel Section). 

“Why should tourists go to Taiwan instead of, say, Hong Kong or mainland China?”

Rather than taking offense, Cherng-tyan Su, director of the Taiwanese tourism bureau, gives an intriguing answer. “Hong Kong has a colonized Chinese culture. True Chinese culture should be in China, but the cultural heritage has been broken by 50 years of Communist Party rule, the Cultural Revolution and the interference with religion.

“In Taiwan,” he promises, “you will find the true, unbroken, traditional Chinese culture.” Here too, he says, you will find in a compact area all the regional cuisines of China and the cultures of 10 aboriginal tribes.

While China is certainly a must-see for those who are studying or interested in Chinese culture, Taiwan provides a wonderful juxtaposition.  Not only is it considered by some as an example of an unfettered Chinese society, but it is also the only true Chinese democracy, albeit a very young one.  The first large wave of Chinese immigrants began settling Taiwan in the Ming Dynasty in the 1600s.  The next major wave of Chinese settlers were comprised of Chinese nationalists fleeing Mao’s communist party in 1949.  During World War II, Taiwan was also occupied by the Japanese.

If the evolution of Chinese culture in modern times is of interest to you, I would also suggest Singapore and overseas Chinese communities as places to visit.  Singapore was a former British colony that was then part of Malaysia before gaining independence.  With a population that is over 75% Chinese, this city-state is a good example of a modern, wealthy, and rigid Chinese society (with Malay and Indian influences) that is focused on Western-style advancement.  English is the official language and the main language used in schools.  In terms of overseas Chinese communities, Chinatowns around the world are a wonderful introduction to Chinese culture, although they will be heavily influenced by where these Chinese immigrants originated.  Most Chinatowns in the US, for example, are dominated by Cantonese speaking Chinese from Hong Kong or Canton.

As a further cultural enticement, Taiwan has the largest and most valuable collection of Chinese Imperial treasures in the world, including China.  Since around the year 1000 A.D., Chinese emperors have acquired the empire’s greatest antiques, art, and treasures and kept them in the Forbidden City in Beijing.  After the last emperor of China was deposed, these treasures were catalogued and stored until the Japanese invaded China.  The treasures were then packed and moved many times to protect them from the Japanese forces.  When the Communists began to take power in China, the head of the Nationalists moved the most valuable treasures to Taiwan for safekeeping, where they have been resided since.  This Imperial collection is housed in the National Palace Museum, where anyone can now visit for less than $5 US.  Apparently the collection is so large that only a small portion is displayed at one time on a rotation basis.  

Three of the most famous pieces of the collection at the National Palace Museum in Taipei include the carving of a jade cabbage, a sculture carved from stone of a hunk of pork dipped in soy sauce and an ivory carving featuring 21 concentric balls nestled within each other.  The carvings utilize the naturally occuring color and texture to their advantage.

Pork StoneIvory Ball

Jade Cabbage

I am looking forward to visiting the National Palace Museum as an adult.  When I last visited I was 13 and was not too enthusiastic about spending hours in a museum, no matter the subject.  I will certainly be on the look out for these food-related carvings!

%d bloggers like this: