There’s no risk of drowning here from flood water anymore. There is no need to take your own life, so you and your brother can patrol the streets as gods. Now perhaps these gods, more personal than ever, offering their eternal protection to those who will still celebrate them, lighting fireworks in the streets, taking their visages out to march once again.Perhaps times will change, and more Taiwanese can see the history residing a ten-minute MRT ride away. Perhaps I was simply lucky to see the old Taiwan, from the perspective of a few who still cared.
I’ve heard Taipei called an ugly city, by waiguoren and locals alike. They are not wrong. Not in the aesthetic sense. Not when they are talking about the Old City, particularly West Taipei. Much of the city is old style, cheap ceramic and cement. If you know what you are looking for, you can date when a building was built or most recently remodeled.
Some of the old buildings, from the Japanese government period, or older, are simply fenced off, and left to collapse. These are the parts of Taipei many are trying to forget. Who cares about history when you have Taipei 101 and ATT for Fun Center, clean hip clubs, bars with dress codes, and some of the most efficient public transit in the world? Perhaps the New Taipei is losing some of itself.
What do you know about Taipei? What do you know about Taiwan?
It’s an island in the South China Sea not too far off the coast of its main land ancestral occupier. Though they are not the China Tiawan once belonged to, the PROC (People’s Republic of China) loudly and economically seeks dominion of it. Taiwan dangles like a severed limb on the periphery of the Pacific Ocean, as a hotspot for the global politics of superpowers, with little concern about the actual people of this island. What do you, my western readers actually know about this little place?
Are you aware of the Spanish and Dutch conflicts and occupations in the 17th century? Do you know that China ceded Taiwan to Japan 1895, after the Sino-Japanese wars? Did you know about the mixed influence Japan had on the island, how they provided many modern technologies, art, music, yet also forced Taiwanese into dangerous labor in places like Jiufen, eventually alongside allied POWs.
Are you aware of the horrors they committed on the local Taiwanese people? In the west we know about the Holocaust. We are quieter in our history lessons about how the Pacific islands suffered at the hands of the Japanese Empire. Taiwan was “liberated” at the end of WWII in 1945, then used as the escape point for the democratically friendly government in China now fleeing Moa Zedong and the formation of the PROC.
Now Taiwan sits in a precarious situation trying to modernize and keep up with the other powerful East Asian economies. It is also dealing with the familiar struggle of not losing itself. I was blessed with the opportunity to tour West Taipei, the old city. My guides were three young Taiwanese whose ambition is to reconcile Taiwan’s past with its present, and to help preserve much of what would be a travesty to lose.
The easier part to draw attention to is the food culture. With McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Fried Chicken joints popping up on every street corner, much of Taipei is looking like New York City in the early 2000s before hipsters started making everything old, cool again.
Well, hipsters still love Starbucks, but McDonald’s and other fast food joints have suffered losses recently in the States at least. A good sushi and hot pot restaurant are still easy to find, but you’ve started to need to look a little harder for the classic Taiwanese treats. Perhaps pork and rice sounds a little too simple to appeal to most modern foodies, but really, is there anything truly better?
The first stop my guides took me to was one such shop, for some savory pork served on rice with veggies and a couple soy eggs. Such a meal is sustaining, getting you through the day without weighing you down. It’s also, with no doubts, delicious.
After a tour of Confucius’ and a Taoist temple, guides with their beers in hand, we made a stop at another traditional Taiwanese restaurant to order pork blood soup.
I know most westerners probably cringed at reading that sentence, but honestly give it a shot. My father, from a mostly polish family, told me you should always try something at least once, you can always stop eating it. The pork blood is congealed into little squares and served in a light broth. It’s good with some rice noodles served in a side dish to help balance out the flavors. My guides shared with me how Taiwanese wouldn’t waste any of an animal, not even its blood.
Another memorable food stop was when we grabbed some traditional Taiwanese sweet sausages, which you eat alongside a clove of garlic.
I had never considered eating a clove of garlic straight up before, but I wasn’t planning on kissing anyone that day, so I figured I’d give it a shot. The extremes of flavor actually paired rather nicely, making the potency of garlic enjoyable in a way I would never have conceived of before.
Finally, I want to discuss the cultural relevance of some of our ending destinations. They took me to a narrow winding street, which was over 200 years old.
It had once been one of the main streets of Taipei, before the Japanese government period, which introduced the modern and popular grid pattern to Taipei city design. Now these streets are home to buildings on the verge of collapse. According to my guides, the government has falsely claimed that it would devote effort and resources to sustaining some of these historically significant sites. Oddly enough, the greatest financial efforts to preserve these streets seem to be coming from the gangs who currently “protect” them.
From tea clubs, where old men pay six USD a day to sip tea and socialize, to the houses of gods, and temples, sometimes forced to move because the modern gods of capitalism bought out their former residence. There is culture laden on history here.
Former red brick houses that used to be prized by the wealthy, now left to dilapidation, on the edges of highways, and throughways. Their waterfront views blocked by towering sea walls.
There’s no risk of drowning here from flood water anymore. There is no need to take your own life, so you and your brother can patrol the streets as gods. Now perhaps these gods, more personal than ever, offering their eternal protection to those who will still celebrate them, lighting fireworks in the streets, taking their visages out to march once again.
Perhaps times will change, and more Taiwanese can see the history residing a ten-minute MRT ride away. Perhaps I was simply lucky to see the old Taiwan, from the perspective of a few who still cared. Maybe we were some of the few to see what’s left, before there is truly nothing left to see.
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