Seeking the best in Chinese food and culture, but feeling pressed for time? Skip the mainland and get it all in one place. Go to Taipei.
In 1949, after years of civil war, the nationalist forces of the Kuomintang withdrew to an island in the South China Sea, leaving the communists in control of the Chinese mainland. The Portuguese had called their refuge Ilha Formosa, the Isle of Beauty, and there the nationalists flourished. Their economy boomed, cultural life was rich, and in time they came to enjoy considerable civil freedoms.
But, the government on the mainland continues to assert its claim over the island, as part of its “One-China” policy, while America has traditionally acted as guarantor of its effective independence. Welcome to Taiwan – the nicest potential flashpoint for World War III.
Towering over the capital like blocky bamboo is the iconic super-skyscraper Taipei 101. The ceremonial precinct where the National Theatre and National Concert Hall bracket a memorial to the country’s founder, Chiang Kai-shek, is as much an assured example of architecture as it is patriotic spectacle. Its mass transport rail system is clean, efficient, and easy to use, and the people are outward-facing, entrepreneurial gourmands.
But at its core, Taipei is a city where modernity and tradition squeeze in cheek by jowl. Temples to the Buddha, Caishen (the Taoist god of wealth) and other deities, sit alongside international chain stores, while the distinctive storefronts of the old town evince 50 years of Japanese rule.
Bustling street markets throng with people, mopeds and bicycles, and sell all manner of dried fruits and fungi that conform to expectations, but entering the deep buildings, many contain arts spaces or tourist boutiques selling fine ceramics or tea.
If you're seeking accommodation, the Grand Hotel lives up to its name. The interiors are recently renovated and decorated with a surfeit of dragons. From the outside it is a giant slab of red pillars and balconies, capped by a huge yellow roof with upturned eaves. At 12 storeys and almost 90 metres in height, it is one of the tallest Chinese classical buildings in existence, and it backs onto a hillside nature reserve, full of well-maintained walking tracks, exotic fauna, and abandoned pillbox defences. The hotel faces the sprawling city; its commercial centre visible intermittently through heat haze and rolling rain.
The hotel was extensively re-developed and expanded in the early ‘70s, and it retains an air of Cold War chic. There is a corridor featuring photographs of some of the international jet-setters who visited during those early years, such as Charles Bronson, Alain Delon and Elizabeth Taylor. The list of political guests is even more varied, including the Shah of Iran, the King of Tonga, Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, the then Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton, and later Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela. A subterranean passage for government officials and VIPs was fitted with a polished concrete slide for emergency use, and in case of bombardment the tunnel could double as an air-raid shelter for up to 10,000 people.
Meeting with government ministers, it was clear that even in a period of relative peace and stability, relations with the mainland loom large. Less than three decades ago the economy of the People’s Republic was only twice the size of Taiwan’s, but following market-economy reforms, and China’s emergence as the workshop of the globalised world, its economy is now more than 22 larger than that of its so-called “renegade province”. From a purely economic standpoint, China has too much to lose and too little to gain in attempting reunification by force. But tensions between the two can still cause problems for the Taiwanese tourism industry, not so much because it might scare off foreign visitors, but because the People’s Republic will sometimes restrict the travel of its own nationals to Taiwan, in retaliation to perceived provocations.
Of the many things that might aggrieve Beijing, the decision of the retreating nationalists to pack up the treasures of the Forbidden City and carry them into exile, is perhaps the most understandable. Over centuries, the Imperial court had amassed an exquisite collection, which is now on display in the magnificent, purpose-built, National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Of course, replicas of many star exhibits are available in the gift shop, but in a neighbouring building a restaurant has a wonderful degustation menu similarly modelled on the museum’s most famous pieces, where a particular highlight is a whole baby Chinese cabbage, dressed in a clingy stock and crowned with a shrimp, to resemble the museum’s most popular artefact, the 19th century hand-carved Jadeite Cabbage with Insects.
Food is an essential part of the Taipei experience. Locally accented Japanese restaurants are popular, as is the notorious stinky tofu, which is bean curd soaked in an intense brine, which might variously include fermented milk, vegetables, meat or seafood, and smells like leachate from a compost heap.
A legacy of the country’s origins, Taiwanese cuisine is an exciting mix of regional foods from across mainland China, and in its vibrant night markets you will find a panoply of edible and barely edible items grilled on skewers or served in a noodly broth. While rice noodle soup with sliced heart and pig rectums is difficult to turn down, the sense of the almost familiar in the reinvention of Western and often more specifically American foods, is where things become especially interesting. The sheer variety of corndogs would cause bafflement at a state fair, and the crispy fried chicken of any street vendor with a decent queue will almost certainly be amongst the best in the world.
But for culinary tourists, the essential experience is a trip to the legendary dumpling-makers Din Tai Fung. With multiple branches across Taipei and throughout the world, viewing windows allow customers to watch perfectly synchronised kitchen staff churning out steam-baskets full of meticulously handmade xiaolongbao at speeds that defy comprehension.
Originally from Shanghai, but now a prized Taiwanese cultural export, these impeccably crimped, ping pong ball-sized delights are paper-thin wheat flour skins, served with a range of fillings, but most commonly pork mince mixed with aspic that melts into a soup during the steaming process. The result is a scalding but delicious pouch of contrasting flavours and textures, and all at surprisingly reasonable prices; unbeatable value for dinner and a show.
Taiwan is a dynamic country that combines the best of mainland Chinese culture, with native traditions, an independent spirit, and a receptiveness to new ideas. Its friendly people – and complicated recent history – make it the ideal destination for travellers looking for something more than the basic beach holiday.