Taipei: The Asian tiger roars

By Mike Roberts Special to the Province Taiwan attracted 60,000 Canadian visitors in 2008. Taiwan’s Transportation and Communications Minister Mr. Mao Chi-kuo, who is also responsible for tourism, says to date this year Taiwan has enjoyed nine to 10 per cent growth in tourism from Canada. Mao credits his government’s renewed interest and investment in tourism, particularly biking holidays, as well as his ministry’s many overseas tourism bureaus for “doing a more effective job to package our attractions and promote Taiwan.” “Recently we have tried to present to the whole world the other side of this island,” says Mao, at his offices in central Taipei. “We have tried to rebuild Taiwan’s tourism image. In many ways, in many respects, Taiwan is a secret that has been kept for many years and now we would like to be discovered by our Western tourists, our Western friends. They will not be disappointed.” On bustling Nanjing West Road, in central Taipei, a cultural revolution of a less hardened variety has begun to take root. “We are talking about a new lifestyle, a happy-life style, we are talking about ‘slow style,’” explains Fran Tseng, the senior staffer at Booday, a design studio-cum-coffee-house brimming with Taipei trendsetters gathered to gab at the epicentre of the new movement. “Slow style,” evidently, is an emergent aesthetic characterized by layers of muted earth-tone clothing draped over a general attitude of righteous nonchalance. Up and down Nanjing, “slow style” moves among the trendy shops and restaurants. In contrast to Taiwan’s  kinetic urgency, “slow style” is like watching a soap bubble drift over a NASCAR circuit.

“We insist on our own style, we are simple and casual in what we do,” says Tseng, on behalf of Taiwan’s youth. But even here, amid the outsized lattes and new Taipei ’tude, the relentless energy that is Taiwan and its people is in no danger of fizzling into memory. “We project a ‘slow style,’ but actually we are quite busy,” explains Tseng, with a flick of her hair. “We are Taiwanese, we need to be doing things, to be busy. If you will excuse me, I must get back to the kitchen.” High above the streets of Taipei, standing sentinel over the teeming modern city, rises Taipei 101, the world’s tallest working building and a beacon of Taiwanese ingenuity and stick-to-it-ness. The Burj Dubai in UAE is slightly taller, but as the Taiwanese are quick to point out, it is yet to be completed or occupied. No trip to Taipei is complete without a visit to the 89th Floor observation deck, a ride that takes 37 seconds and is so smooth that a coin placed on its end will not tip over during the ear-popping ascent to the top. With a total height of 508 metres and 101 floors, Taipei 101 was built to withstand earthquakes like the 6.8 rattler of 2002, as well as the annual typhoon season. One of the most intriguing features of the tower, which houses many of Taipei’s top financial firms, are the “Super Big Wind Dampers,” massive counterweights suspended from levels 92 to 87. The concrete-and-steel dampers — each weighing 660 metric tonnes — are available in the gift shop as much smaller toys, called Bumper Babies. From the hyper-modern to the truly ancient, Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, located in the city’s Nanhai district, features 655,000 pieces of bronze, jade, ceramic, calligraphy, rare books, archives, and tapestries. Established in 1956-57, it is ranked as one of the world’s top four museums, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre Museum in Paris and the British Museum in London. It would take months, if not years, to study every artifact contained in this vault of cultural treasures, most of which were brought over from Mainland China for “safekeeping” at the time of the 1949 communist takeover.

While the Fei-ts’ui jade cabbage, a vegetable carved from a piece of green and white stone a few hundred years back, seems to attract the lion’s share of interest on the main floor, just as fascinating is the Pi-hsieh jade jewelry set from the Han Dynasty, circa 200 BC. The crudely hewn jade set features a crescent, a ring, a three-holed talisman, and a necklace of hollowed jade tubes that must have cost a bomb back in the day. Equally intriguing are the ancient Bronze Age water vessels into which the emperors of the time engraved their treaties and decrees to preserve them in perpetuity. n n n Just beyond the boundaries of Taipei, about 30 minutes drive from downtown, is Yangmingshan National Park, an oasis of green, rolling hills, hiking trails and romantic lookout points. Yangmingshan is Taipei’s answer to Stanley Park — though it’s been some millennia since Vancouver’s emerald jewel featured active volcanoes! In the heart of the Datun Volcanic Group, one of the park’s most spectacular mountain tops, Cising Mountain, is currently spewing gaseous sulphur from fumeroles created by a recent landslide. The park is easily accessible by bus and train, and is a popular spot for newlyweds, who come from far and wide to be photographed frolicking amid the verdant mountain slopes. From green hills to marble floors, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is truly awesome in scope. Featuring the National Theatre and the National Concert halls on either side of its immense piazza, the hall itself contains a four-storey statute of Taiwan’s beloved former president, replete with rotating honour guard. Each hour, soldiers of the Navy, Marines or Army switch off, taking turns guarding the smiling president, who died in 1975 at 95. Each guard must be exactly 178 cm tall, be fit and slim, and stand frozen for one hour. If sweat gathers on his brow, or a wrinkle appears in his starched uniform, a wee fellow in a black suit comes out and dabs and fusses. No trip to Taipei is complete without a visit to one of the city’s many night markets. The Raohe St. Night Market is a favourite with fashion shoppers and lovers of “stinky tofu.” Aromatic would be a generous description for this local treat, malodorous more accurate. Up and down Roahe Street, cauldrons and woks boil and sizzle with the stuff. It is in the night markets, after the heat of the day, that Taipei comes out to play. Children are left to catch small fish from plastic tubs (as pets or dinner, it wasn’t clear) while their minders shop for treats and trinkets, including hand-made glass figurines that glow in the dark. High above, as night falls over the city, Taipei 101 is turned into an urban lighthouse of red, green and blue lights and as Fran Tseng makes her way home from Booday, humming a slow style tune as she guns her motor scooter down Nanjing Road.

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