Where Fools Fear to Tread — A Snapshot of Taiwan (Taipei & the East Coast)

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography’s map of Taiwan


In August 2010 I went on a trip to Taiwan. Like most Americans, I had little knowledge of the island in East Asia. In school, we learned that Taiwan was formerly called Formosa (although I don’t believe it was mentioned by whom). Later it became Taiwan. The Nationalists (the “good guys” in the view of my teacher) lost to the Communists (the bad guys) and relocated to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War, which as a young student I assumed was when its history began. When I was growing up, there was a good chance that any cheap toy or appliance would bear the stamp “Made in Taiwan” or, in the case of my alarm clock, “Made in the ROC.” Also, Taiwan is not Thailand, something which I have disappointingly had to point out to many an acquaintance who should know better.

I went to Taiwan because my sister lived there and because I needed a change of scenery after barely emerging alive from the dissolution of a relationship. I purposefully limited my research of Taiwan because I wanted to be surprised. My sister introduced me to a friend of hers, Hsiao-wen. I was informed that my idea of aimlessly exploring Taiwan by bicycle and train had been nixed and instead we’d be driving along the coast, joined by two natives of the island. Most of the driving would be handled by a friend of Hsiao-wen’s, Xiao Mei — who proved not only to be an excellent driver, but an engaging, knowledgeable, and endlessly charming host. I’m only writing about the trip now, six and a half years later, because I’ve since grown to write about my overseas travels as Where Fools Fear to Tread and thought that I should revisit that trip, still very often on my mind, before I travel overseas again (this time to Korea and the Philippines).

It turns out that Taiwan’s history is actually quite long, and its history of colonialism and politics quite a bit more complicated. Taiwan’s nearest neighbors are China to the west, Japan to the east and northeast, and the Philippines to the south. In addition to the main island, it includes smaller offshore islands like the Kinmen, Matsu, Pratas, and Penghu islands. The total area of jurisdiction is 36,193 km2, making it the world 137th largest country — only slightly smaller than Switzerland and slightly larger than Belgium. Or, to put it another way, about the same size as Maryland but with four times the population.

Midday rain
Midday downpour in Taipei

The island lies on the Tropic of Cancer and has a climate that can be described as Marine Tropical. The northern and central portions are subtropical and the southern third is tropical. The island is divided by a mountain range, where the climate is temperate. The rainy season lasts from May to June and from June to September it’s hot and humid. Typhoons most commonly occur from July to September. From November to March, rain falls on the northeast whilst the rest of the island is usually sunny.  Taiwan is a heavily urbanized country, with 78% the population living in cities. 95% of the population lives in Taipei or on the West Coast. After arriving in Taipei, we headed down the more sparsely populated East.


Because of politics (more on that in a bit), Taiwan is the most populous nation not represented at the United Nations (UN).  It also has the largest economy of any country not represented at the UN. China occupies Taiwan’s seat at the UN, because China claims Taiwan, even if in reality they have no control over the nation, which has its own government, prints its own currency, issues its own passports and visas, and was most recently part not of China, but of Japan — unless you consider the Republic of China to be colonizers of Taiwan, which, in some ways they are.

In my experience, many Taiwanese-Americans deemphasize their Taiwanese identity within Los Angeles — incidentally home to the largest population of Taiwanese people outside of Taiwan. I’ve never seen that fact acknowledged, by the way, except by me. Whereas every Angeleno knows that the Los Angeles metropolitan area is home to the largest population of Armenians, Cambodians, Filipinos, Iranians, Koreans, Mexicans, Salvadorans, Thai, and Vietnamese outside of their respective homelands, it was only through research that I discovered that the same is true of the Taiwanese.

When I told people that I was traveling to Taiwan, several made jokes about ladyboys — again, that would be Thailand. A co-worker joked that I should pick him up a souvenir as he’d always wanted something “made in Taiwan” — even though those cheap knickknacks are today more often made in Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Philippines or Vietnam and if an American has something in Taiwan today, it’s more likely an expensive bicycle or widescreen television than something you’d find in the toy chest at a dentist’s office. This ignorance is compounded by the fact that Taiwanese isn’t a choice on the census. I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen ads promoting tourism to Taiwan. Nearly every American that I know who has traveled to Taiwan has done so to visit family or for business, rather than primarily for pleasure — although it’s a very pleasant place! Most Americans have no idea that boba tea and Mongolian barbecue are Taiwanese. Locally, restaurants like Din Tai Fung and Pine and Crane enjoy tremendous popularity but I’ve never heard anyone identify their menus as Taiwanese — just Chinese, “Asian,” and… Thai.

It is true that most Taiwanese are ethnically Han Chinese. 84% of the island’s population are descended from Chinese immigrants who arrived between 1661 and 1895. Another 14% arrived after 1948. The indigenous population of Taiwan comprises only about 2.28% of the island’s population — slightly less than the foreign-born population — most of whom from Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Japan. Most people living in Taiwan consider themselves to be Taiwanese. A smaller percentage differentiate between being ethnically Chinese and nationally Taiwanese.

The relationship between Chinese and Taiwanese identity isn’t completely dissimilar to the relationship between Anglo-Americans and England. Ethnically speaking, I am at least partly English-American. The US fought a war with England and no one claims that the US is part of the UK. The root culture of the US is English culture and most Americans speak a dialect of English. Yet no one argues that American culture and English culture and identity are indistinguishable, influenced as the two countries are by separate histories and cultural interactions. Certainly, no one in the UK argues that the USA is somehow an integral part of it.

Taiwanese culture and identity are also distinguishable from those of China and it was never difficult to distinguish Taiwanese locals from Chinese tourists. The indigenous Taiwanese were matrilineal societies and Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, is both a woman and part Taiwanese aborigine (one of her grandmothers was Paiwan). There are aboriginal radio stations and musical acts, languages, and dishes like Taiwanese meatballs and shave ice have their roots in aboriginal culture. Interestingly, Taiwanese identity is more focused on Chinese traditions than is Chinese society, following the Communist revolution and the drive to modernize. Most Taiwanese haven’t adopted simplified Chinese (introduced on the mainland to combat illiteracy). Glove puppetry, wuxia films, and television dramas which reinforce Confucian values are highly visible aspects of Taiwanese pop culture. The influence of Japan is very evident in Taiwan too. The popularity of karaoke, enka, teppanyaki, baseball, manga, and pachinko are just a few signs of Japan’s cultural influence. The prevalence of Kentucky Fried Chickens and 7-Elevens are some of the obvious/dubious signs of the influence of American culture.


Taiwan’s human history begins in the Late Pleistocene, but I’ll try to make it relatively brief. Some 30,000 years ago, humans settled what was then a peninsula on the Asian mainland. Evidence of their presence is limited so far to chipped-pebble tools and fragmentary human remains but it’s widely hypothesized that these pioneers were related to modern Australian Aborigines, Melanesians, and so-called “black Asians” (e.g. the Aeta, Ati, Batek, Lanoh, Maniq, Papuans, Semang, &c). About 10,000 years ago, rising sea levels turned the peninsula into an island.

It was only relatively recently that evidence of Taiwan’s earliest settlers was discovered and by then the term “aborigine” had long been applied to the Austronesian peoples who probably arrived about 8,000 ago and were previously believed to be the first humans on the island. The sea-faring Austronesians spread from Taiwan across most of the Pacific and Indian oceans, settling Hawaii, Madagascar, Micronesia, the Philippines, Rapa Nui, and possibly even had contact with Native Americans (the Chumash, Mapuche, and Tongva). Today there are sixteen federally recognized aboriginal tribes and ten unrecognized. While Taiwanese governments in the past downplayed the role of aboriginal Taiwanese, today they’re increasingly promoted as part of what distinguishes Taiwan from China.

In 230 CE, the Eastern Wu launched an expedition from China to Taiwan. In 607, the Sui Dynasty attempted to explore the island. On both occasions, the Chinese were turned away by the aborigines. Chen Di, in his Record of the Eastern Seas (1603), referred to the inhabitants of Taiwan as “Eastern Savages.” In 1283, the Yuan Dynasty established settlements on the Penghu Islands, a small archipelago in the Taiwan Strait (now administered by Taiwan) which had until then supported no permanent villages. In 1592 (more than three centuries later),  Japan claimed the island which they referred to as “Takasago Koku” (高砂國). To back-up their claims, the Japanese attempted to invade in 1616 but like the Chinese were defeated by the aborigines.

The first non-aboriginal power to successfully establish a foothold on Taiwan was a private company, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), which did so with the establishment of Fort Zeelandia (in modern-day Anping) in 1624. The company employed Chinese laborers from Fujian and Penghu, who were the first Chinese to settle on the island. In 1626, the Spanish Empire founded ports at mmodern-dayKeelung and Tamsui. In 1642, the Spanish were driven from Taiwan by the Dutch company. With just sixteen years of presence in two forts, Spain seems to have left few signs of its short presence although some believe that xiaochi are descended from tapas.

Meanwhile, on mainland China, the Ming Dynasty fell to the Qing. Soon afterward, a Ming loyalist named Koxinga (國姓爺) fled to Taiwan. Koxinga had been born in Hirado, Japan in 1624 to a Japanese mother and a Chinese pirate father. In 1662 he captured Fort Zeelandia and the Dutch presence ended. Koxinga established the Kingdom of Tungning (東寧王國), with Tainan (臺南市) as its capital. Tungning fell in 1682 and in 1683, the Qing Dynasty formally annexed Taiwan, placing under the jurisdiction of Fujian. Although nominally part of China, there was little immigration from the mainland until the 1760s.

The Qing were deposed in 1895, when the Empire of Japan conquered the island. Japan embarked on a program of industrialization, constructing factories, railways, sanitation systems, and establishing schools. In the 1930s, Japan launched an assimilation project called the Kominka Movement, which outlawed expressions of Taiwanese culture and even encouraged the adoption of Japanese names and dress. Thousands of Taiwanese women euphemistically known as “comfort women” were forced into sexual slavery to service Japanese Imperial troops. World War II ended with the surrender of Japan in 1945, after which the Republic of China (established in 1912) assumed control of Taiwan.

The Chinese Civil War was fought from 1927 and 1950 between the Republic of China (led by the Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Kuomingtang Party (KMT)) and the People’s Republic of China (led by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China). In December 1949, following several disastrous defeats, Chiang evacuated his government (and two million mainland Chinese supporters) to Taiwan and made Taipei the ROC’s “wartime capital,” with the intention of triumphantly returning to the mainland some day. Meanwhile, with their capital in Beijing, The People’s Republic of China (unable to conquer Taiwan) regarded and still regard Taiwan as a “rogue province.” Whilst they remain opposed to one another, the ROC and PROC share the view that there is but one China, and that Taiwan is part of it. The ROC, in fact, even assert that parts of Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, India, Japan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, and Tajikistan are also part of China — even though their control has long been limited only to Taiwan.

When the Korean War began in 1950, the US threw its support behind the KMT to quell further hostilities between the PROC and ROC. The people of Taiwan, meanwhile, bore the brunt of the ROC’s military power. The ROC declared martial law in May 1949, claiming that they would end their military rule once they were victorious over the PROC. The 38 year period which followed was known in Taiwan as the White Terror — a period in which some 140,000 Taiwanese deemed overly critical of the KMT were subjected to imprisonment, torture, and execution. Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975. Pro-democracy protests began in 1979. Martial law finally ended in 1987 — the longest period of martial law in human history. The ban on newspaper publishing was lifted in 1988. In 1989 the ban on rival political parties was lifted. In 2000, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party was elected as the first non-KMT president.

Today Taiwan is a highly developed country with a solid economy, a free press, universal healthcare, modern rail infrastructure, and several active political parties. In May of this year, a panel of justices will decided whether or not Taiwan will become the first nation on the Asian continent to legalize gay marriage. President Tsai, an unmarried woman and proud “cat lady,” has expressed her support for marriage equality.

One of the first places that we visited as an old area of the city, the Bopiliao Historic Block (also known as Bopilao Old Street). After I arrived at Taipei Taoyuan International Airport and was picked up by my sister and Hsiao-wen. After a brief rest at her home, we picked up Xiao-mei. We next headed to Bopiliao, a Qing Dynasty-era street in the Wanhua District that was developed in 1799. It was an interesting contrast to the modern, bustling city of Taipei, filled with pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, and motorists. Soon after we began our drive down the coast.


the tunnel
Hsuehshan Tunnel

We drove through Hsuehshan Tunnel (雪山隧道). Xiao-mei rolled down the window so that we could listen to a recorded educational dialogue about the tunnel’s construction. Periodically the recording was interrupted by unseen officials calling out individual drivers for tailgating, driving to quickly, or driving too slowly.

Lanyang Museum
Lanyang Museum

We emerged from the tunnel in Yilan County (宜蘭縣), in northeastern Taiwan. The name is derived from the name of the aboriginal Kavalan people. The county seat, Yilan, is a small city with a population of about 95,000, located on a harbor at the mouth of the Lanyang River (蘭陽溪). Across the water, one can make out Guishan Island ( 龜山島, literally “Turtle Mountain Island”). Beyond that, the Japanese island of Yonaguni is just 100 kilometers east.

Yilan night market
Luodong Night Market

In Yilan County we visited the Lanyang Museum (蘭陽博物館) in Toucheng (頭城鎮). In Yilan City, there was a festival taking place which involved monkeys. Although I had read that Taiwan was home to the Formosan rock macaque, the monkeys at the festival were either toys, illuminated sculptures, or costumed humans. We visited the Luodong Night Market (羅東夜市) which was my incredible first experience at a night market. Night markets aren’t unique to Taiwan, but they are perhaps more closely associated with it than any other country although in recent years they’ve began to flourish in and around Los Angeles. (See: Pan-Asian Metropolis — Southern California Night Markets) We spent the night at a charming bed & breakfast, Yilan Karma Malan Ancient House (噶瑪蘭ㄟ古厝).


The most popular aspect of Taiwanese culture, internationally, has to be the food, even if many people who consume Taiwanese food don’t seem to realize it. Popular chains like Bake Code Bakery & Café, BlackBall Taiwanese Dessert, Cha for Tea, Chatime, Din Tai Fung, 85°C Bakery Café, Quickly, and Ten Ren’s Tea Time all began in Taiwan and overseas Taiwanese founded Ajisen Ramen, Guppy House, Duke Bakery, Half & Half Tea Express, Lollicup Coffee & Tea, Tapioca Express, and Tea Station. (See also Pan-Asian Metropolis — Asian Chain Restaurants in Los Angeles)

Food seems always to be on the mind of the Taiwanese. The island, you’re told, is shaped like a sweet potato. People joke that Taipei 101 resembles a stack of oyster pails. Monika Treut’s documentary, The Raw and the Cooked: A Culinary Journey Through Taiwan, should’ve increased awareness of Taiwanese cuisine — most Mongolian barbecue fans still seem to think that it’s Mongolian. Mongolian barbecue (蒙古烤肉) is neither Mongolian nor barbecue. It’s actually a Taiwanese continuation of Japanese teppanyaki (nomadic Mongolians would’ve had little interest in lugging huge metal grills around the steppes). After the end of Japanese colonialism, teppanyaki was rebranded in 1951. Other popular Taiwanese dishes of Japanese origin include grilled squid, moachi, shave ice, tempura, and wheel cakes.

Taiwanese cuisine is also, of course, influenced by the cuisines of China — especially the traditions of Fujian, Beijing, Chaoshan, Guangdong, Hunan, Jiangxi, Shanghai, and Sichuan. Taiwan has put its stamp on Chinese dishes like gua bao, oyster omelet, and that delicious night market staple, stinky tofu. Predating both the Chinese and Japanese were the aborigines, who existed primarily as hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. Their cuisines owed to the environments in which they lived and the seasons. Boar, millet, rat, taro, and yams were common food, as were various wild vegetables. Boba tea, cucumber pork, cuttlefish geng, dried radish omelet, eel noodles, iron eggs, oyster vermicelli, small sausage in large sausage, and tamsui a-gei are all truly Taiwanese inventions.

One of the improvised vegetarian meals at an aboriginal restaurant.

I’ve been a vegetarian for 28 years, but I found Taiwan to be an absolute vegetarian’s paradise. Taiwan has an abundant supply of various fruits such as papayas, starfruit, various melons, and citrus. Sweet corn is very popular. Vegetarian restaurants with a wide variety of dishes are commonplace, in large part due to the influence of Buddhism and other syncretistic religions like Yiguandao. Beef, introduced by the Dutch in the 17th century, has yet to catch on and Taiwan manufactures the world’s best mock meats. I often read that vegetarians will have a hard time communicating their restrictions to various Asian cultures, but even in restaurants with not a vegetarian option on the menu, not one cook was unwilling or unable to serve up something both meatless and delicious.

Rice paddy
Exploring Yilan reminded me of Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder,” but then, what doesn’t?

After a breakfast of congee, I explored the vicinity around our lodging, charmed by the reflections of the sunrise on rice paddies and stumbling across an attractive temple. Later, we all bicycled to the National Center for Traditional Arts (國立傳統藝術中心), where folk arts and crafts are showcased. We walked around Scholar Huang’s Residence (黃舉人宅) and took in an opera (歌仔戲) performance. There was also a display of glove puppets and Xiao-mei inquired as to whether I was familiar with the art and I replied that I was not. She then told me about a long running television program, Pili (霹靂), which she said she would hold up as an exemplar of Taiwanese culture, if she could only choose one.

Scholar's House
Scholar Huang’s Residence

Glove puppetry emerged in Fujian in the 17th century. The original puppets were fairly simple. The Chinese name, “布袋戲” actually means “cloth bag play.” In Taiwan, the puppets have grown ever more sophisticated and no one would compare them to mere sacks. Nowhere is this more evinced than on Pili, where the puppets are almost eerily lifelike, crying and bleeding with slashed with blades.  Pili debuted in 1985 but sadly, most of the outside world has been deprived of proper exposure to it. In 2000, a poorly edited and translated film adaptation was released no fanfare. In 2006, a mere two episodes aired on the Cartoon Network as Wulin Warriors, also in mangled form.



Taiwan (and Korea) embraced television as a symbol of modernization following its success in Hong Kong. The ROC embraced television as a political too to promote mainland Chinese values. Taiwanese dialects were forbidden. Depictions of modern Taiwan’s modern, working class were shunned in favor of historical dramas set on the mainland.

There are now five terrestrial stations, Taiwan Television (TTV), China Television (CTV), Chinese Television System (CTS), Formosa TelevisionFormosa Television (FTV), and Public Television Service (PTS). There’s cable television as well. When I was in Taiwan, television programing seemed to be dominated by baseball, dramas, game shows, variety shows, and Pili.

Modern Taiwanese drama (台灣電視劇), referred to by fans as “TDrama” or “TWDrama,” usually avoid overt expressions of nationalist sentiment in favor of stories about young people in their first relationships, young people in love triangles, young lovers overcoming some obstacle to their young love. They’re sometimes divided into Taiwanese Minnan dramas (台語劇) and idol dramas (偶像劇), the latter often built around young, pretty pop singers for whom acting ability is relatively unimportant. Xiao-mei told me that such “actresses” are colloquially referred to as “vases.” To me, Taiwanese dramas seem virtually interchangeable with Korean and Japanese dramas although they’ve thus far failed to reach the same level of international popularity. Thus far their success has been limited mostly to oversees Mandarin (and occasionally Taiwanese Hokkien) speakers, as well as small audiences in Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.


Cold springs
Su’ao Cold Springs

After leaving Yilan City, we headed to Su’ao (蘇澳鎮), most likely where the Spanish established San Lorenzo. The area is popular with tourists, most of whom come to soak in the area’s hot springs. Disliking, as I generally do, sitting in hot water — especially on muggy August days — my hostesses kindly obliged me with a visit to Su’ao Cold Spring (蘇澳冷泉) before we moved on.

Taroko Gorge
Taroko Gorge

We next entered Hualien County (花蓮縣), the largest county (by area) in Taiwan. The biggest draw for tourists to Hualien is Taroko National Park (太魯閣國家公園), one of Taiwan’s nine national parks, and Taroko Gorge (太魯閣). The gorge is a nineteen kilometer long canyon, dramatically carved by the Liwu River (立霧渓). The park was established by the Japanese as Tsugitaka-Taroko National Park, the name is derived from the indigenous Truku people. After taking over the island, the ROC abolished the park — but it reopened in 1986.

Truku Fiddlehead farm

In the jungle, we hiked the Shakadang Trail (砂卡噹步道) and passed by a Truku village, where, near a bird’s nest fern farm, some Truku cooked fish whilst others played in the alluring, turquoise waters of the Shakadang River. It was around that point that I started feeling pulled into the jungle, even entertaining notions of “leaving it all behind” and spending the rest of my days there. Alas, I was pulled out of my trance by my companions, although I still regularly dream of returning. Further along the trail we were greeted with the dramatic site of the the Shakadang Bridge (砂卡噹橋), nicknamed the “Bridge of 100 Lions.”

Bridge of 100 Lions

We stopped in Hualien (花蓮市), the county seat of Hualien County. It’s similar in size to Yilan — home to about 100,000 inhabitants, roughly 9,000 of whom are aborigines — the largest such population in Taiwan. Its name is derived from the native Sakizaya, who called the village “Kiray.” The Japanese, in turn, called it Karenkō, which was shortened to Karen and, finally, Sinicized as “Hualien” by the ROC. The girls went out, I believe to the Dongdamen Night Market (東大門夜市). I went to bed early.

Hualien City
River Tracing

Whilst still in Hualien County, we went to Ji’an (吉安鄉) for a morning of river tracing with a company called River King. River tracing, apparently more often known as “canyoning” (when it is known at all) refers to hiking inside a mountain stream. It’s apparently a popular pastime in Taiwan and even more so, Japan, where its name translates to “climbing up clouds.”

Chishingtan Beach
Sixty Stone Mountain
Daylilies on Sixty Stone Mountain

In Hualien County we went to an aboriginal restaurant (I believe 流流社風味餐) in Hualien City, relaxed at breathtaking Chishingtan Beach in Xincheng (新城), stopped at Fung Chun Ice House (丰春冰果室) in Shoufeng (壽豐鄉), ate at Man Mei’s Pig Knuckles (滿妹豬腳) in Fenglin (鳳林鎮), enjoyed brandy ice cream at the Hualien Sugar Factory (花東縱谷國家風景區), ate daylilies on Sixty Stone Mountain (六十石山), and visited Morisaka, a former Japanese logging camp.

Morisaka ruins

Morisaka was of special interest to me. As we approached, I smelled a bewitching scent which seemed to possess me and seize me by my stomach. It turned out to be Formosan Cypress, a tree with a scent similar (if superior to) Japanese hinoki. The Japanese appreciated its scent and over-cut it to the brink of extinction to build temples with. Inside the Lintianshan Forestry Center there are numerous large, fragrant sculptures and the effect is awesome. There are numerous abandoned Japanese buildings in the camp — and no one does abandonment like the Japanese. In one building, torn, fading pin-ups still adorned a wall withstanding over half a century of exposure. Inside the door, there were still shoes placed on the rotting floor.

Abandoned Morisaka railway


The last region we visited was Taitung County (臺東縣). Taitung County was the last corner of Taiwan to be colonized by the Han and remains its least populated. The county seat, Taitung City (臺東市), is in many ways the antipode of Taipei, which is actually more distant from the city than are the Philippines. Taitung is slightly larger than Yilan and Hualien, with a population of about 105,000, and thus the largest city on Taiwan’s east coast. At the same time, the county is the country’s least populous.

The monkeys slowly come out of the jungle

We spent two nights in the forest near Dulan (都蘭). The first place was rustic and the second, Taitung Sea Art Hostel – Motherland in Dulan, even more so. I got up one morning around 4:30 and hiked into the jungle in search of macaques. At the edge of the jungle, next to a field, there were half eaten fruits discarded, apparently haphazardly. I sat still for a while and eventually heard branches cracking in the dense wood. Excitement took hold when I spied a pair of dark eyes looking back at me. Slowly, a small troop of monkeys joined me at the roadside and resumed eating some farmer’s crop. I also encountered some Taiwan dogs, whose names I would later find out were Toto, Venus, and Yoli (they belonged to the owners of the hostel). In my monkey-finding expedition, I also encountered a family with red-stained mouths betel nuts.



Before visiting Taiwan I’d never even heard of betel nuts. Betel nuts are the seeds of the areca palm (Areca catechu) and are wrapped in leaves alongside cloves, cardamom, catechu, and slaked lime. The nuts contain various compounds, including arecoline, which is similar to nicotine in both its psychoactive ingredients and carcinogenic effects. The “nuts” are apparently popular throughout much of Melanesia, Micronesia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Africa. I sort of wanted to try the betel nuts whilst I had the chance (I’ve never seen them anywhere else) but the chewers’ red stained mouths and saliva were grotesque enough to dissuade me.

I was further dissuaded by the fact that betel nuts are generally procured from betel nut stalls staffed by betel nut beauties. The stalls usually resemble nice bus stops, albeit lit with neon. The beauties are women clad rather scantily — especially by the modest standards of Taiwan. The women usually looked rather bored, to me, as the delivered the product to long-haul truckers, taxi drivers, construction workers, fishermen, and the like. Nothing that I saw suggested anything else was being sold but there’s something unseemly and depressing about the combination of objectification and capitalism that left a weird taste in the mouth. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t muster whatever was required to enter any of the stalls.

In Taitung, we attended the Austronesian Cultural Festival. Although expressions of aboriginal culture were suppressed by the island’s colonizers, a reawakening of aboriginal culture began in the 1980s and now several aboriginal tribes are involved extensively in the tourism — especially ecotourism.

Eight Arches Bridge

Among the other sites we took in was the Sanxiantai Bridge, which connects Chenggong (成功鎮) to Sanxiantai Island. For reasons which are immediately obvious, it’s also known as Eight Arches Bridge. We also visited the Luyeh Highland, above the town of

Sim City
The village of Luye in the Huatung Valley

 (花東縱谷), which Xiao-mei compared the view of to a game of SimCity. We also went tea tasting at 愛嬌姨茶餐, where I picked up some plum snacks and tasted excellent green tea.


For about ten years, boba tea (波霸奶茶) has been extremely popular in the US. It was invented in Taichung (臺中市) in the 1980s. For many more years, Taiwan has been closely associated with oolong tea. Although Taiwan also produces green teas, black teas, and tisanes, 20% of the world’s oolong comes from the island. Taiwan’s tea history is relatively short, in the ancient history of tea. It was only introduced to Nantou County (南投縣) in 1717. The tea-loving English pushed for increased tea production after the 1860 ratification of the Treaty of Tientsin. The first Taiwan-grown oolong was exported in 1865 and was followed by pouchong in 1881. Before long, tea became one of Taiwan’s main exports and during the 1950s and ’60s, when China was subject to trade embargoes, Taiwanese tea flourished. After Chinese tea once again became widely available, Taiwan shifted its focus to special varieties, in particular, oolong.


The last few days of my trip I spent back in Taipei. Although one of the most visited cities in the world, it strikes me as mostly unexposed to outsiders except by the occasional film. In 2013, more than 6.3 million overseas visitors came to Taiwan, making it the fifteenth most globally visited city — just behind Rome and ahead of Shanghai and Tokyo.


Whilst many films have made great use of those three cities as backdrops, Taipei is little seen outside of Taiwanese dramas and films. Taipei is a backdrop in Luc Besson‘s Lucy, Ang Lee‘s Eat Drink Man Woman, Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai‘s Turn Left, Turn Right, Robert Wise‘s The Sand Pebbles, John Woo‘s A Better Tomorrow, and parts of Wong Kar-wai‘s Happy Together. Whilst staying in the Taipei Marriott Hotel, one night I watched Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time is it There? (你那邊幾點), released in 1985.


Film was introduced to Taiwan in 1901, by the Japanese. Most films shot in Taiwan were made for Japanese audiences, and included exploitation titles like Conquering Taiwan’s Native Rebels (1910) and Heroes of the Taiwan Extermination Squad (1910). The Japanese also used film as a propaganda tool to promote the modernizing and civilizing effect of their colonial presence with films such as Japanese Police Supervise a Taiwanese Village (1935). Taiwanese cinema naturally adopted aspects of Japanese film. For example, Japanese silent films employed interpretive narrators known as benshi instead of relying on intertitles. In Japan, they became stars in their own right. In Taiwan, their equivalents were known as piān-sū.

After the end of Japanese rule, Taiwanese films continued to be made in Taiwanese Hokkien. However, the KMT regarded Taiwanese as “coarse” and after years of rule, the last film shot entirely in Taiwanese was filmed in 1981. The KMT established the Central Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC; 中影公司) in 1963, to produce “health realism” dramas designed to promote Chinese values and propagandize the country’s industrialization. Martial arts films were also tremendously popular in the 1960s. Hong Kong had emerged as the capital of Chinese film production in the 1940s, whilst China’s mainstream Mandarin cinema mostly ignored the genre. Hong Kong produced both higher budget wuxia films and lower budget kung fu films. The greatest of wuxia directors was King Hu (胡金銓), who directed the classic Come Drink with Me (大醉俠) at Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio before moving to Taiwan. In Taiwan, he made Dragon Gate Inn (龍門客棧) in 1967. His greatest film, A Touch of Zen (俠女, literally “heroine”), was completed in 1971.


The home video explosion of the late 1970s and early ’80s proved a challenge to Taiwan’s film industry, as Hong Kong imports flooded the island. In 1982, the CMPC produced In Our Time, which provided a reaction against the frenetic action of kung fu imports with a subtle, nuanced, neorealism provided by four Taiwanese directors, Edward Yang (楊德昌), I-Chen Ko, Te-Chen Tao, and Yi Chang. A resulting film movement was promoted as New Taiwanese Cinema, which also included Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢). Hou, after debuting with the uncharacteristic Cute Girl (就是溜溜的她) in 1980 began, attracting international attention with his third film, 1982’s The Green, Green Grass of Home (河畔青草青 aka 在那河畔青草青). Around 1990, the more accessible so-called Second New Wave emerged, led by Ang Lee (李安), Stan Lai (賴聲川), and Tsai Ming-liang (蔡明亮).

In recent years, Hollywood blockbusters have attracted a large share of business, although Wei Te-Sheng‘s (魏德聖) Cape No. 7 (海角七號), released in 2008, broke box office records and is often credited with reinvigorating native cinema. Other notable Taiwanese filmmakers include Chen Kuo-Fu (陳國富), Chen Kunhou (陳坤厚), Frankie Chen (陳玉珊), Giddens Ko (柯景騰), Richard Li Han Hsiang (李翰祥), Sylvia Chang (張艾嘉), Tom Lin (林書宇), We Te-sheng (魏德聖), and Wu Nien-jen (吳念真). Notable Taiwanese actors include Brigitte Lin (林青霞), Chang Chen (張震), Charlie Chin (秦祥林), Gwei Lun-Mei (桂綸鎂), Hsu Feng (徐楓), Jacklyn Wu (吳倩蓮), Jerry Yan (言承旭), Jimmy Lin (林志穎), Joan Lin (林鳳嬌), Rene Liu (劉若英), Richie Ren (任賢齊), Ruby Lin Xinru (林心如), Shu Qi (林立慧), Sihung Lung (郎雄), Takeshi Kaneshiro (金城 武), and Yang Kuei-mei (楊貴媚).

Taipei 101
Taipei 101 in the distance

Most of Taipei seems to average around twelve stories, with the occasional ancient, single story looking home surrounded by forebodingly high walls. The skyline of Taipei is dominated by Taipei 101 (臺北101), originally known as the Taipei World Financial Center — and the world’s tallest building from 2004 until 2009. Prior to the influx of Han from China, the Taipei Basin was the homeland of the Ketagalan people. After separating Taiwan from the Fujian-Taiwan Province in 1886, Taipei was made the province’s new capital. Taipei was made capital of the Republic of China in 1949. Taipei City is itself located within the “special municipality” of New Taipei City, a 2,052 square kilometer ring around the city proper that was known simply as Taipei County until December 2010, four months after I departed.

Narrow, partly covered alley in Taipei

Taipei City is divided into twelve administrative districts, each of which is further divided into neighborhoods. The city is built on a square grid configuration and divided into large city blocks, most of which are crisscrossed with small but heavily traversed lanes and alleys — quite unlike the alleys of American cities, which are used primarily for garbage storage, as commercial loading zones, and if films were to be believed, where gangs of toughs hang out waiting to prey on the unsuspecting pedestrian who dares pass through them. New Taipei City includes 28 districts and one “mountain indigenous district” (山地原住民區) and is further divided into 1,017 villages and 21,683 neighborhoods. The combined metropolitan area was home, in 2013, to approximately 7,045,488 people, making it slightly more populous than Dallas-Fort Worth and slightly less than Hong Kong.


Bikes, buses and pedestirans

As in virtually any city, the best way to explore Taiwan is on foot, and that’s how I conducted most of my travels there. By all indications, bicycling is another popular, sustainable transportation choice. Of course, there will for the foreseeable future always be those inscrutable city dwellers who insist at all costs on driving their own vehicle —although at least many of Taipei’s motorists choose nimble scooters over bulky automobiles.

Department of Botany, National Taiwan University

My explorations took my to Taipei Prefecture Capital East Gate (台北府城東門) and Taipei Expo Park (花博公園) (both in the Zhongshan District); the Monopoly Bureau – Taiwan Tobacco and Wine Co., Ltd Building (专卖局 | 台湾菸酒股份有限公司), Jieshou Park (介壽公園), 228 Peace Memorial Park (二二八和平紀念公園), the Presidential Office Building (中華民國總統府), and Liberty Square (自由廣場) (all in the Zhongzheng District); Lungshan Temple of Manka (艋舺龍山) (in the Wanhua District); National Taiwan University (國立臺灣大學) (in the Da’an District); and the Tsu Sheng Temple (臺北孔子廟 ), Taipei Confucius Temple (臺北孔子廟), and Dalongdong Baoan Temple (大龍峒保安宮) (all in the Datong District).

Taipei Confucius Temple
Dalongdong Baoan Temple

One morning I got up early and took the train to the coastal city of Tamsui (淡水區), in New Taipei/Taipei County. With a population of about 160,000, it’s larger than any of the cities we visited on the East Coast but located next to Taipei feels like a small, charming seaside village. Tamsui There I visited Tamsui Old Street and Fuyou Temple (淡水區公所), built in 1796 and dedicated to Mazu, Goddess of the Sea and the deified form of a Fujianese shamaness. I got there as I did many of my Taipei adventures not undertaken by foot, via the Taipei Rapid Transit System (臺北大眾捷運系統).

Fuyou Temple


Commonly known as the Taipei Metro (台北捷運), the 131 kilometer-long transit station, serving 117 stations, launched in 1996. It has an average daily ridership of over two million. Automated announcements are made in Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and English — which makes me wonder why Los Angeles’s Metro announcements are limited to English and Spanish, when so many Angelenos and visitors are more comfortable with Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, Armenien, Vietnamese, Farsi, Japanese, or Russian. It would be cool, I think, if at the very least, announcements in Koreatown were also made in Korean.

On the train from Tamsui

The country is also served by Taiwan High Speed Rail (台灣高速鐵路), a 350 kilometer long train line serving the west coast based on Japan’s famed Shinkansen. The railway, connecting the two most populous cities cities (Taipei and Kaohsiung), opened in 2007. As of 2015, Taiwan’s total railway network covered 1,692 kilometers and it’s possible and easy to take travel to any major city by train.



One night I took the Metro to the National Concert Hall (國家音樂廳), where I met Xiao-mei for a classical saxophone recital. Xiao-mei plays french horn in an orchestra but I can’t remember the saxophonist’s name nor whether he performed in the same group.

As you’d hopefully expect, Taiwan has as vibrant a music culture as anywhere, and in addition to the aboriginal music festival and the recital, we listened to pop music on the radio for most of the trip — on one occasion even hearing Modern Talking, an English-language Eurodisco (known in Southern California as Vietnamese New Wave) group from the 1980s which for reasons I don’t completely understand, are much more famous in Asia than in the entire Anglosphere.

Taiwan’s indigenous music can be broadly divided into two traditions, this of the plains people and those of the mountain people. The music of the Amis, Bunun, Paiwan, Rukai, and Tsou is characterized by polyphonic vocals. Common folk instruments jaw harp, pestles, and zithers. The Formosa Aboriginal Dance Troupe was formed in 1991. In 1995, the Bunun Cultural and Educational Foundation was established. In 1996, German Eurodisco star Michael Cretu sampled Amis couple Difang and Igay Duana (without license) for his Enigma hit, “Return to Innocence.” The so-called “New Wave of Indigenous Pop” kicked off around the same time and in 2005, the aboriginal radio station, Ho-hi-yan, was launched. Well-known aboriginal musicians include A-mei and Samingad.

The Chinese imported their own music traditions including beiguan, Hoklo folk music, nanguan, and Chinese opera, which evolved into Taiwanese opera. The KMT suppressed Taiwanese music in favor of Chinese music and there are several prominent Taiwanese musicians associated more closely with Chinese music including Cheng Sui Cheng, Ensemble Bai Yin Chung Yun-hui, Sunrise SinoWest Orchestra. There are also Taiwanese musicians more closely associated with Western Classical traditions, including Ching-Yun Hu (胡瀞云), Cho-Liang Lin (林昭亮), and Wu Han.

The Japanese introduced enka music during their occupation of Taiwan and as in China and Korea, Taiwan produced its own enka performers who sang in both native languages and Japanese. Well-known Taiwanese enka singers include Cai Gui, Chris Hung, Matsumura Kazuko, and Xie Liting. The best known Taiwanese enka singer was Teresa Teng (鄧麗君). Teng was born in 1953 in Tianyang Village and began recording with Life Records in 1968. In the 1970s, decades after the end of Japanese occupation, Teng began recording in Japanese as well. In 1971, after China assumed the UN seat previously reserved for Taiwan, Teng was barred from performing in Japan after attempting to enter the country using a counterfeit passport. Tragically, Teng died at the age of 42 in 1995, whilst on holiday in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The 1970s also saw the rise of the so-called schoolyard folk songs (校園民歌) influenced by both American protest music and Chinese folk, as exemplified by Chen Da and Yang Hsiuching. Genres which remain popular include working class Hokkein pop and Taiwanese Mandopop, the latter exemplified by the “Queen of Hats,” Fong Fei-fei.

Rock, heavy metal, hip-hop, and dance music have all had notable influence on Taiwanese popular music, examples of whom include Cheer Chen, Deserts Chang, Dirty Beaches, Hello Nico, Joanna Wang, Mavis Fan1976, NyLas, Sandee Chan, SELFKILL, Summer Lei, Tizzy Bac, The Girl and the Robots, and Waa Wei.


One night we visited an Eslite Bookstore (誠品書店)— I believe in the Da’an District. Eslite is one of the largest retail bookstore chains in Taiwan. In addition to audio and video media, it contains a huge selection of books. One of its chief appeals is that its open 24 hours a day, and in a 24 hour city like Taipei, there were many night owl-book worms amongst its shelves.

Due to their political divisions, it wasn’t until 1986 that a novel by a mainland Chinese writer was openly published in Taiwan. One of the results was that Chinese literature was long available primarily in counterfeit form. Another is that Taiwan developed a rich literary scene, producing many novelists, poets, and especially, short story writers. Taiwanese literature includes works written in Japanese, Hokkien, Hakka, Mandarin, and aboriginal languages.

Awards for Taiwanese literature include the Taiwan Literature Award (presented by the National Museum of Taiwan Literature), the Wu San-Lien Literary Award (presented by Wu San-Lien Award Foundation); and the Aboriginal Literature Award and the Min-Hakka Literary Award (both presented by the Ministry of Education of Taiwan).

Prominent Taiwanese writers include Bo Yang (柏楊), Belinda Chang (章緣), Cai Sufen (蔡素芬), Chen Ruoxi (陳若曦), Chen Yingzhen (陳映真), Cheng Ching-wen (鄭清文), Chiung Yao (瓊瑤), Chou Meng-tieh (周夢蝶), Chu Hsi-ning (朱西甯), Chu Tien-hsin (朱天心), Chu Tien-wen (朱天文), Chung Chao-cheng (鍾肇政), Chung Ling (鍾玲), Danny Wen (溫士凱), Huang Fan (黃凡), Huang Chunming (黃春明), Jiang Gui (姜貴), Jimmy Liao (廖福彬), Lai He (賴和), Li Ang (李昂), Li Ao (李敖), Li Li (李黎), Lin Haiyin (林海音), Lin Huaimin (林懷民), Liu Ka-Shiang (劉克襄), Lung Ying-tai (龍應台), Ma Sen (馬森), Nie Hualing (聶華苓), Ouyang Tzu (歐陽子), Pai Hsien-yung (白先勇), Ping Lu (平路), Pai Hsien-yung (白先勇), Qiu Miaojin (邱妙津), Rong Zi (蓉子), San Mao (三毛), Shi Shuqing (施淑青), Su Weizhen (蘇偉貞), Wang Tuoh (王拓), Wang Wenhua (王文華), Wang Wenxing (王文興), Wang Zhenhe (王禎和), Wu Zhuoliu (吳濁流), Xi Murong (席慕容), Xiao Sa (蕭颯), Yang Kui (楊逵), Yang Mu (楊牧), Ye Shitao (葉石濤), Yu Guangzhong (余光中), Yu Lihua (于梨華), Yuan Chiung-chiung (袁瓊瓊), Zhang Dachun (張大春), Zhang Xiguo (張系國), Zhang Yingtai (張瀛太), and Zheng Qingwen (鄭清文).


Finally, as an unrepentant lover of drink, I was always on the look out for potential opportunities but I don’t believe that any of my traveling companions ever imbibed anything stronger than tea or coffee. In Taitung, I remember seeing a group of aborigines smoking cigarettes and drinking cans of Heineken in the morning, which didn’t seem especially appealing. In Taipei, it was common to cross paths with clearly drunk Korean travelers — invariably enveloped in a cloud of tobacco smoke. I wanted something both social and a bit more civilized and Xiao-mei said that I could drink in public if I wanted to. Tolerance and modesty seem to govern so much Taiwanese behavior and, rather than drink alone in a group, I usually took some wine back to my hotel room and enjoyed it whilst chatting online with the television on for added company.

Exploring Taipei I noticed plenty of KTVs, lounges, and nightclubs — but we never visited them. Finally, towards the end of my visit, we visited a bar, Der Löwe. Really it was more than a bar, a pijiu-wu (啤酒屋), to be more precise — a bit like the Taiwanese equivalent of an izakaya. The pijiu-wus in Los Angeles often have themes, as is the case with Jurassic Restaurant侏羅紀啤酒屋 (prehistoric), Uncle Yu’s Indian Beer House (Native American), and the sadly defunct Magic Restroom Café (you guessed it). The theme of Der Löwe is Bavarian, which is an excellent choice, as it means large beer steins and waitstaff in lederhosen and dirndl. It’s also, apparently, where the white people hang out.

Beer, like izakayas, is one of the least objectionable remnants of Japan’s occupation of Taiwan. Taiwan’s best-selling beer, Taiwan Beer (台灣啤酒), was first established as the Takasago Malted Beer Company in 1922. It was given its more patriotic name in 1946, almost immediately after the ROC took over. Taiwan beer’s only major local competition is Long Chuan Beer, a pale lager brewed by Taiwan Tsing Beer Company in Kaohsiung and available in various fruit flavors. Finally though, the macrobrew scene is making room for more lovingly manufactured brews. In 2002 the government ended the monopoly on alcohol and tobacco production and now there’s also Jolly Brewery, Le Blé d’Or, North Taiwan Brewing, and Redpoint Brewing. Until next time, 乾杯!

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of California, Campus CirclediaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 GalleryHe is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.
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30 thoughts on “Where Fools Fear to Tread — A Snapshot of Taiwan (Taipei & the East Coast)

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