Nearly everything about Taiwan sets it apart from China. The language, the food, the politeness of its citizens — the very fabric of Taiwanese culture echoes more Japan than China. Everything from the sushi joints to the bathhouses to the way vertical neons signs hang from buildings is patently Japanese, and if you walk through Taipei’s side streets, you could be in Tokyo’s Ginza or Shinjuku. Put simply, Taiwan is a fiercely independent island nation that is a hybrid of China and Japan, with characteristics of both but the cultural identity of neither.
Over a long weekend in June 2012, Kara and I made the short trip to Taipei. There’s a lot to see in Taiwan and each part of the island is unique, but we figured that Taipei, as the capital city, would be the ideal place to start. The flight time from Hong Kong is just over one hour, but the distance from Taipei Taoyuan Airport to the city center is another hour by taxi. We stayed at the Tango Hotel in the Xinyi District (信義區), the central business district of Taipei and close to nightlife, night markets and the famous Taipei 101. The hotel was modern, and they put us in a gigantic, windowless room.
Our first stop was Taipei 101, one of the tallest buildings in the world and just a short walk from the Tango Hotel. The building really sticks out from the Taipei landscape, and not just because it’s 101 stories tall and looks like a giant bamboo stalk. Unlike Hong Kong or Shanghai, where there’s a forest of skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, Taipei 101’s surrounding buildings are short, dingy and much older. There aren’t many glass-and-steel buildings in Taipei, and the city feels as if not much has changed since the 1960s. This set the Xinyi District in stark contrast to the urban centers of most Chinese cities, which are newly built and have a fresh, shiny look and feel.
The bottom floors of Taipei 101 consist of an upscale shopping mall, in line with IFC or Pacific Place in Hong Kong. If there’s anything more charmless and sterile than seeing a Gucci or Fendi store in Asia, I don’t know what it is. We went through the mall quickly and found the entrance to the observation deck. Kara and I have a habit of getting drinks on tops of very tall buildings, and Taipei 101 gave us an opportunity to add to our list. Once on the observation deck, we each enjoyed a mango-ice-cream-in-beer concoction that was delicious.
Next to the Taipei 101 is the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall (國立國父紀念館). The Taiwanese consider Dr. Sun the “father” of the country, as he founded the Chinese Republic in 1911, overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and the last emperor. He was also the founder of the Guomindang (Nationalist) government, which fled to Taiwan from China when Mao and the Communists assumed control of China in 1949. The hall reminded me of the Lincoln Memorial in DC, and the hall’s ceiling had the familiar blue Nationalist star which is also on the Taiwanese flag. Interestingly, outside of the Hall, a group of Taiwanese teenagers were practicing their dance moves while hip hop music blared from a boombox.
A “must see” in Taipei is the National Palace Museum. Before the Guomindang fled China in 1949, they took all the relics, antiques and art from the Forbidden City in Beijing and smuggled it to Taiwan, and opened the National Palace Museum to show it all off. Apparently they have so much loot, only 10% of the art is on display at any given time. If you go to the National Palace Museum, there’s no reason to go to any museum in China, because it would be like getting Italian food at a suburban Fazzoli’s after dining in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tuscany. The museum experience was great, but due to the rain and the huge number of museum enthusiasts, we couldn’t get a taxi out of there. In the days before Uber, we hopped on a city bus that crisscrossed the city and eventually took us back to the Xinyi District.
Tired from the museum and frustrated by the constant rain, we decided to stay in our hotel room until the rain stopped. At night, we wandered through the puddle-strewn streets on foot, which, as always, is our preferred way to explore a new city. More times than not, we get lost, but that just gives us a unique story to tell. On this night, we stumbled upon a traditional Japanese restaurant that served excellent yakitori and sake, and ended the night at a shady karaoke joint. Unlike most karaoke places in Asia (and we’ve been to many), this one didn’t have private rooms. Instead, there was a single video screen and some couches in a large room, and a machine with a small selection of English music (nothing after 1985). The “madam” of the karaoke bar agreed to let us sing, but we were required to hire a “hostess” to help us; this is standard operating procedure for single men in such places, but a bit odd considering Kara was with me. Nevertheless, we agreed, and Kara and I did a few of our usual karaoke numbers. I even sang a duet with the “hostess”, choosing from one of the three Mandarin songs I knew by heart. Luckily, the place was empty aside from two Chinese businessmen who didn’t speak English and couldn’t care less about my lousy rendition of “Lady in Red”.
Our last day in Taiwan, it finally stopped raining, and we treated ourselves to lunch at the original Ding Tai Fung. I’ve eaten at Ding Tai Fungs in California, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, but nothing touches the original. It was well worth the 90-minute wait. We sat next to a large table of Japanese tourists, and enjoyed the best soup dumplings (xialongbao) we’ve ever had. For my money, it doesn’t get any better than a steamer full of xialongbao washed down with Taiwan Gold Medal beer.
After lunch, we went to the Longshan Temple (龍山寺), which was unspectacular, and checked out the shops in the narrow alleyways in the surrounding neighborhood. After all the rain, it was nice being outside in the sunshine.
We capped off our stay in Taipei with a long taxi ride to Beitou (北投區), a hilly neighborhood north of the city renowned for its natural hot springs. Our taxi driver, like all that we had encountered in Taiwan, was friendly and chatty, and told us a bit about the area. He was curious about Hong Kong, and about the States, and we bantered back and forth in Mandarin about life in Taiwan.
Soon, we arrived at Villa 32, where we rented a private hotspring room for a few hours to soak our troubles away. Villa 32 was a hotel, spa, and restaurant all in one, and there was a mountain backdrop, lush vegetation and a waterfall. Fittingly, it reminded us of a Japanese onsen, and since it was the Japanese who first brought hot spring bathhouses to Taipei back in the 1890s. We left Villa 32 refreshed and relaxed for our plane back to dizzying, hectic Hong Kong.