There’s a certain quirkiness about Taiwan that makes it terribly endearing. Maybe it’s the family-friendly nightclubs or the spread of seafood that will make you drool guiltily the next time you watch Finding Nemo. If this is your maiden voyage to this lush island of smiling people (never mind that their ancestors were headhunters), be prepared to have some pleasant surprises thrown your way
Words: SHARMEEN HUSSAIN
Photographs: HIMANSHU PANDYA
I take a bite of the puffer fish and quietly await my imminent death. I chew slowly, trying to enjoy myself even though it feels like I’m eating cartilage. We’re sitting in a restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan’s very modern capital city, and the room’s beginning to swim. Just when I think I can see my life flashing before my eyes, I hear a round of nervous laughter from around the table. Peter, our guide, has just informed us that the chef has ‘the licence’ to prepare the deadly puffer fish for consumption by unwitting visitors like myself. And so, after about five minutes, when I’m quite convinced the poison hasn’t seeped into my bloodstream, I begin to relax. It’s not very tasty, but I’m pretty stoked to still be alive, so I really enjoy the rest of the meal. But don’t get me wrong, the rest of the food is delicious: swordfish sashimi served on a bed of thinly-sliced onion, curly baby octopus with bokchoy and basil, grilled cuttlefish with red chillies and more bokchoy. Fresh (and unusual) seafood is something Taiwan specialises in, and, whether you’re looking for sea urchin, upside-down jellyfish or fish innards, you’re more than likely to find it here, and find it tasty.
An island nation, Taiwan has long relied on the sea for its food. From the aborigines – Austronesian people who were once the sole inhabitants of the land but now make up only two per cent of the population – to the present-day population, which is a mixture of aborigines, Japanese and even Han Chinese, they all love their fish. But more on that later. First, let us give the grave matter of this country’s history its due importance.
For a while now, Taiwan has been regarded by some as an orphan state. Abandoned by its fathers time and again – first by Portuguese and Dutch settlers, and then the Japanese, who left unceremoniously after WWII – it finally managed to gain success after detaching itself from its biological father (China) and step-dads. After the Chinese Civil War, China’s government was split into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), run by the Kuomintang party leader, Chiang Kai-shek. The ROC relocated to Taiwan, and, in 1950, the ROC’s power was restricted to Taiwan. An armistice was never signed, and so, to this day, the war technically isn’t even over.
The question of whether Taiwan is still a part of mainland China is a sticky one. It doesn’t help that China has 1,500 missiles pointed toward the island waiting to fire if the ROC ever declares its independence. Suffice it to say that the country is in a bit of a soup regarding its polity and governance. But that doesn’t make it any less cool.
Taipei seems to have shrugged its shoulders at this political indecision and got on with life. The modern city has all the trappings of an urban heaven and you wouldn’t for a moment believe this was once a land of headhunting aboriginal savages. Globalisation has hit. Hard. Foreign cars whiz down the immaculate city streets, pedestrians dress in vogue-esque outfits, malls are stuffed with designer brands and life, as it is, goes on.
Inside the very large and very confusing Guang Hua Digital Plaza, a gadget mall, there is proof everywhere of Taiwan’s technological advancements. Following the economic boom in the late 20th century (famously known as the Taiwan Miracle), many local brands began supplying to worldwide firms and even set up branches in Silicon Valley, USA. I realise now why all my stationery when I was in 6th grade and any cool gadgets that made their way to my house were suddenly all Made in Taiwan.
As the sun sets, youngsters with green and pink hair emerge onto the streets, ready for the night. We decide to experience a slice of their evening for ourselves, but not before viewing the sunset from the top of Elephant Mountain. A hike up the slippery trail brings us to a viewing point that offers us unmatchable panoramas of the twinkling city skyline. Soon after, we make our way to Ximending, a popular local hangout, where the neon lights, kerbside stalls and their owners with their fluffy pet dogs jostle for our attention. Artists paint on the pavement and play musical instruments amplified by cheap speakers while food carts sell all manner of xiaochi – ‘small eats’, or snacks. These substantial snacks are widely accepted as the fourth meal of the day. A country that endorses midnight snacks? Taiwan just became my new best friend. I’m considering trying some oyster omelettes and sewage-smelling stinky tofu (even the locals say it smells like sewage, I swear!) but decide against it because, well, it’s pretty stinky (see Make it Happen for all details). So naturally, I direct my attention to other things. Like shopping. Cheap retail seems to be the buzzword here, and I’m amazed at what my money can buy – knock-off designer garments, shoes, miniature figurines of myself crafted on the spot, accessories, back warmers, incense bottles… At Raohe Street Night Market, another one of many night markets in Taipei, you can even get your eyebrows threaded on the road, in plain view of everyone. It’s all very exciting and all very surreal. I curb my enthusiasm with a jacket potato doused in melted cheese from a stall nearby (what five-course meal?).
We make our way back to our hotel with the help of some very eager and helpful locals. As a side note, you’ve got to hand it to the people here for their warmth and generosity. Even with the language barrier, since not too many Taiwanese speak English, they’ll do whatever they can to help you out, and do it with a smile and a xie xie. Why they are thanking me when they’re the ones helping is beyond me, but that’s just how they are.
Take in all of Sharmeen’s rambles through Taiwan… there are memorials and strippers on the menu… Get yourself the whole story in LPMI’s September 2015 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.