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Friday, February 11, 2011

Journey to Taipei, Day 3

The Lunar New Year was set to begin at the end of the week so the various temples and public buildings in town were getting decorated with red lanterns and parenthetical couplets astride the doorways. This was a good chance to head-out and visit Longshan temple, the oldest place of worship in Taiwan, having been established by Fujianese Buddhists in the late 1730s. But this is not to say that the buildings are terribly old; in 1945, the complex had been subjected to extensive bomb-damage. The sad fact is: if you want to see old structures, Taiwan isn't the place.

I can't help delving into the history because it's kinda neat: Taiwan was the last significant piece of territory to be securely brought within the Chinese empire. Up until the 1600s, the island was primarily inhabited by a variety of early Austronesian pre-state societies, some of whom are still up in the mountains. (Linguists have determined that roughly five millennia ago, some groups of these natives sailed down to the Philippines and Indonesia. Somehow, they took-over and Austronesian became the dominant language group across much of southeast Asia. But back to Taiwan...)

Over the centuries, settlers from Fujian sailed across the strait to Taiwan's flat western side, established farms and slowly worked their way inland, either acculturating or displacing the yuánzhùmín (original inhabitants), as the natives are called today. (Calling them 'barbarians' went-out of favor a few decades ago.)

In the 1600s, Dutch tried to claim Taiwan but were soon forced-out by a Japanese-born Chinese sea commander by the name of Guo Xing-ye. Alternatively, he was known to the Dutch East India Company (remember Nagasaki?) as Koxinga... a filthy filthy pirate. Guo established the Tungning kingdom, an enclave of Ming loyalty, which held-on for four decades after the mainland fell to the Qing. Today, he's something of a demi-god among certain sectors of southeastern Chinese folk belief.

The Qing invaded Taiwan in the 1680s (with some Dutch assistance) and forced the surrender of Guo Xing-ye's grandson. The Emperor Kangxi was persuaded by advisors to annex the island and officially-sanction Chinese emigration to the island. The Longshan temple was founded about fifty years later, in what would seem to be the aftermath of the first wave of official settlers.

So, here's a taste of the oldest religious structure in Taiwan:

Half a click away is the most iconic building of modern Taiwan since 1980: the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, the ultimate culmination of the Generalissimo's personality cult.

A few years ago, there was an almost-farcical re-naming controversy about this monument which touched-upon the Chiang regime's dark side. The relatively new Democratic Progressive Party wanted to re-title the place National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall in order to reflect Taiwan's transformation into a multiparty republic and memorialize individuals who were persecuted under the Kuomintang's single-party rule.

Beginning in 1949, the ROC's constitution began to be bypassed by a series of emergency decrees which were ostensibly aimed at suppressing communists but were also used to bludgeon opponents of the KMT. The sometimes-bloody suppression of dissent in the 1950s is today referred to as Taiwan's White Terror. (A little glimpse of the mailed fist played-out in 1984 in southern California when Henry Liu, a dissident reporter and naturalized U.S. citizen, was murdered in his garage by Taiwanese agents.) Martial law didn't officially end in Taiwan until 1987.

So in 2007, the monument's name was changed to National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall... And in 2008, the name changed right back again.

After you walk through the modestly-named Gate of Great Centrality and Perfect Uprightness you progress through a wide square between the national theater and concert hall. Then, you go through the garden and climb the stairs up to the memorial which have been modeled after the kinds of steps over-which Chinese emperors were carried in the Forbidden City. You approach the iron sliding doors, and it kind of looks like this:

If you arrive at noon, you're just in time to see the 10 minute, needlessly-elaborate changing of the guards. This particular segment of it goes about 3 and a half minutes. If I hadn't filmed this, I swear you'd accuse me of making this up:

In the basement museum, one can see personal effects and plenty of photos. One of them was an obviously-staged snapshot of the 1943 Cairo Conference which depicted a grinning Chiang having a 'chat' with FDR and Churchill, despite the fact that he didn't speak English. There are also items on display like medals gifted by faraway anticommunist heavies such as Paraguay's Alfredo Stroessner and the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo. You can also see his 1955 Cadillac and his 1972 Cadillac.

The place was kind of anticlimactic, really.

But towards the end of our last full day, we went to some department stores and had dinner. All in all, we managed to pack a lot of stuff into rather too short a time.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Journey to Taipei, Day 2

Day 2 was the day I was really looking-forward to: Visiting the National Palace Museum, which truly deserves its reputation as being one of the world's finest art collections.

If you go to the Forbidden City in Beijing, it is a grand-scale complex. There, you can spend hours walking around in admiration of the buildings and how it's all laid-out. But where's the neato stuff?

Right? The jade. The ceramics. The artwork. There are some items on display, but not nearly as many as you'd expect. The complex feels rather empty. So where's the stuff??

It is here! Back in the '30s, the vast art collection (including rare books, furniture, and so on) was loaded onto trains and evacuated from Beijing so that it wouldn't fall into the hands of the Japanese army. Then, during the civil war of the late '40s, it was evacuated to Taiwan to place it out of the reach of the Maoists.

Currently, only 1% of it is on display with the rest being sealed-away in vaults. Ownership of the priceless collection is currently disputed, with Beijing claiming that the entire set has been looted. As a result, the artwork almost never goes on tour abroad, lest it be impounded under the auspices of international treaties governing stolen artifacts. The last time it left Taiwan was in 2008, when bits of it got a special waiver to be on display in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

So, really, I considered this a very special kind of visit. I couldn't take pictures, but the museum website can be seen here.

One doesn't need to know a lot about Chinese history to appreciate this museum. To be sure, it certainly helps to know the difference between the Tang dynasty and the Yuan dynasty, but it's not a wholly necessary kind of prerequisite to enjoy what you see. The collection has so many one-of-a-kind items which span so many centuries that you could pick a case at random and find something of great interest.

Okay, so you want to see the official jade seals of the Emperor Qianlong? They got 'em.

You want groundbreaking examples of innovations in Ming and Qing porcelain cloisonné, with nary a crack, from the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen? They got 'em.

You want the Tibetan Dragon Sutra, printed in 108 volumes, in gold ink? They got 'em.

And so it went on and on like that. Really, the stuff is so interesting, part of you wants to press your nose against the glass.

And if that isn't enough of a sell, I should mention here that one of the top draws to this museum is a piece of jasper-- a chunk of dry, cold stone-- which has been carved, dyed and polished to very, very realistically resemble... a chunk of barbecued pork good enough to eat.

Come on, anybody can appreciate this.

So, after leaving the museum in northern Taipei, we were in a good position to see the Shilin night market, the city's largest.

This place was a lot of fun. You can get all manner of food. Buy clothes, shoes, trinkets, foot-massages, basically anything you want. It's a walking buffet; you can even find extra-pungent examples of a famous Taiwanese specialty: stinky tofu. And, no, that's not a mis-translation.

It's a fun evening out and you just can't eat in one place.

Next up: Longshan temple and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Journey to Taipei, Day 1

Despite the ferocity of a volcanic eruption in Kyushu, our flights to Taiwan and back were not affected one iota.

So, our first day in the Republic of China was basically a sojourn into the city center of Taipei and a quick trip on the metro to the nearby city hall. There, it was possible to walk by the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, a large structure erected in the early 1970s to commemorate the founding father of post-imperial China.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen, China's analogue to George Washington, is one of the few 20th century figures who is revered in both Taiwan and on the mainland for his attempt to lead a republic in the wake of the collapsed Qing Empire. The weak republic foundered and devolved into the warlordism and chaos of the 1920s; the last years of his life were devoted to trying to pick-up the pieces of the shattered country.

The building's concrete eaves were (somewhat) painted to mimic what you'd find in the Forbidden City in Beijing. While visiting this place, one could be forgiven for imagining that sun Yat-sen was actually buried there. (In reality, his body lies in Nanjing in the People's Republic.) The grandiose memorial mainly has to do with the fact that the Republic of China's legitimacy rests on it being the sole continuation of his regime.

Alas, we didn't feel like making more than a cursory glance around the memorial and we barely had a look at the bronze statue inside. We only passed through because the subway station happened to be next door. We were actually on our way to the more modern and interesting spectacle a mere three blocks to the south: Taipei 101, aptly named for its 101 floors. It stands 509 meters to the top of its spire and held the title of world's tallest building from 2004 to 2010 until the construction of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. (Future second-tallest buildings are apparently under construction in places like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Seoul.)

At the foot of the building is the Taipei 101 mall, the country's most ostentatious high-end shopping center. The interior was being festooned with red and gold banners in preparation for the Lunar New Year which was slated to begin at the end of the week.

Okay, so you want to build what was, at that time, the world's tallest building? And you want it in an area which is subject to typhoons and earthquakes? My, how ambitious.

Fortunately, there are a variety of engineering tricks which help to make this edifice one of the most stable buildings on Earth.

For starters, stretching-up the core is a cluster of jointed supports that are not unlike the human spine. Tremors on the ground therefore find it difficult to be transmitted upwards. In the top, there is a 730-ton pendulum in a metal sling, the largest of its kind in the world, made of welded steel plates. It acts as a counterweight to push-back against typhoon-force winds. The top of the building is therefore too heavy to be swayed out of place. It sounds very unnerving but it all seems to work, apparently.

And it's visible from all around, making Taipei 101 the signature landmark of the city. I took this at dawn:

So did we go to the top?

No. There were low clouds on that day and the open-air observatory was closed. We felt it wasn't a good idea to go up if visibility was poor. Yes, yes, I know. Very disappointing. That'll be something for me to do on the next trip there, I suppose.

Next up: The National Palace Museum and the Shilin night market!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Welcome to Taipei...

...While crossing the street, watch-out for the occasional motor-scooter.