Making connections in Taipei: going deep into the Taiwan capital’s history and culture

In the winter of 1949, ceramics, paintings, jade, calligraphy and other treasures were packed into 2,972 crates and shipped from Nanking, China, across the Taiwan Strait to Keelung Harbor in Taiwan. They were from the imperial collection and had already spent 16 years hidden in warehouses and monasteries, protected from the Chinese Civil War. All that art has been caught in the middle of a stand-off ever since.

And this is how the world’s largest collection of Chinese artifacts, representing 8,000 years of culture and history, came to be on permanent display in Taiwan. It survived multiple wars, travel by train, truck and boat and the ravages of weather and humidity. “Fortune was with us; not so much as a teacup was broken,’’ diplomat Han Lih-wu, who organized the shipments, was quoted as saying in the New York Times in 1986.

A dynasty in an object

Inside the National Palace Museum

At the National Palace Museum, most visitors make a beeline for the Jadeite Cabbage and Meat-Shaped Stone carved from jasper. These rock stars — so to speak! — sculpted by anonymous artists during the Qing dynasty (the cabbage is believed to have been for an empress’ dowry), have their own gallery and maintain a busy tour schedule. When we visit, the cabbage is away at the Taichung World Flora Expo.

But no matter. The museum has 670,000 other objects. Jennifer Kung, a volunteer docent, gives us a tour. “I’m a geologist by training,” she says by way of introduction. “I see time in 10,000-year bands.”

With that, she leads us on a joyful walk through the galleries, using everyday objects to bring entire dynasties to life: ideograms etched on a wood panel explain the evolution of Chinese characters; a ceramic bowl is a window into the influence of royal kilns. Jennifer explains how an artist in the Song dynasty held a brush to write elegant calligraphy. Then she sighs: “For me, that period is better than Ming.”

Delightful daily details

Xiao long bao
Xiao long bao

Once you see it, you notice this regard for beauty and detail everywhere. Exhibit A: xiao long bao. Originally from Shanghai, it is Taiwan’s Din Tai Fung that gets credit for bringing the pork-filled soup dumplings to the world, by making that commitment to 18 precise folds in every dumpling.

This attention is also found in xue hua bing, literally “snow flower ice”. The name comes from the petal-like shavings formed by a machine purpose-built for this dessert. The technique creates an ice cream-like texture that turns humble shaved ice into a vessel for all kinds of flavors, from the fruits at Ice Monster to the tower of almond snow from Summer Tree Sweet on Dihua Street.

A sculpture outside the National Palace Museum
A sculpture outside the National Palace Museum

Precision and delightful intention has also reinvented that most mundane part of city living: garbage disposal. Whatever neighborhood you’re in, keep an ear out for Taipei’s garbage trucks. Taiwan has one of the most successful recycling systems in the world, and residents keep to a strict schedule. The trucks crawl down the street playing a cheerful arrangement of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” as everyone comes down with their color-coded trash bags, tossing them straight into the trucks — garbage day has become a community event that also limits the need for trash bins. The result: clean streets, no smells, no vermin.

A nod to Japan

Songshan Cultural and Creative Park
Songshan Cultural and Creative Park

Soulfulness balanced by meticulousness rules other areas of urban design, like Taipei’s street plan, a grid system built by the Japanese when they ruled Taiwan from 1895 until the end of World War II. The Japanese also established Baroque-style government buildings, durable infrastructure that remains in use today, and many of them are getting a second lease on life. A standout example is Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, which was built in 1937 as the Matsuyama Tobacco Plant of the Monopoly Bureau of the Taiwan Governor’s Office. It was the island’s first modernized tobacco factory and it helped Taiwan survive the economic downturn of World War II. Today, it is a creative hub, home to the Taiwan Design Museum, shops promoting local designers, a bookstore dedicated to local authors and, on the second floor, a sprawling workshop and makers’ space.

Dihua Street
Dihua Street

For travelers, the most obvious reminder of Taiwan’s enduring connection with Japan is its bullet train. When the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) was conceived in the 2000s, it was the first time the shinkansen was exported overseas. THSR travels along the island’s western rim. We ride it south to the end of the line, Zuoying station in Kaohsiung.

Going local

Via the THSR, we head to Fu Wan Cafe Villa in Pingtung County, where chef and entrepreneur Warren Hsu has turned his family’s fish ponds into a leisure farm and award-winning chocolate brand. Leisure farms are the Taiwanese version of bed-and-breakfasts, and are such a popular option for local holidays that an association exists to support their development. Every farm has its own personality, a reflection of the area and the owner’s interests.

Raw, split cacao beans
Raw, split cacao beans

In Pingtung, the government had been convincing betel nut farmers to switch crops, and cacao turned out to be a good alternative. There were plantations in the hills near the Hsu family ponds, and so Warren saw an opportunity to marry his love for unique flavors with an understanding of local agriculture. He convinced his parents to build a state-of-the-art chocolate factory on fish pond land. The result is Fu Wan Chocolate, one of a handful of bean-to-bar chocolate makers in Asia. It burst onto the international stage in 2017, winning competitions with its 70% Taiwan cacao and Asian flavor combinations. We spend an afternoon tasting square after petite square of chocolate that Warren lays out on a long wooden plank — first the classic dark chocolates, then the nama (a Japanese chocolate recipe that uses fresh cream), then his own inventions: rose lychee nibs, dried mango, Thai curry shrimp. Throughout the day, and for the rest of our stay, a smile never leaves his face, and I’m not sure who is enjoying this more, him or us.

Harvesting cacao at the Fu Wan Chocolate plantations
Harvesting cacao at the Fu Wan Chocolate plantations

Back in Taipei, we finally try hotpot, the default meal for socializing among the Taiwanese. On first look, it isn’t our thing — smoky rooms, cumbersome 20-page menus, cooking your own food — but Mr Meat Hotpot & Butchery changes that. Han Chen opened Mr Meat four years ago to showcase local producers. His is a short menu — one page! But it elevates local meats like black swine from Dong Bao, cherry duck and Fun Sun chicken to the same level as Spanish Ibérico pork, American Angus beef and New Zealand lamb.

Mr Meat Hotpot and Butchery
Mr Meat Hotpot and Butchery

In Warren and Han, we see the epitome of a phrase the young Taiwanese have latched onto in recent years: xiao que xing, “a small but certain happiness”. It was coined by Japanese author Haruki Murakami (who of course has a massive fan base in this country) to describe the pursuit of everyday pleasures and the appreciation of transient bliss. A good cup of tea, say, or a well-designed bowl or one wonderful bite of food. A moment of simple, tangible joy that turns the mundane into a moment.

In hindsight, this outlook should not be a surprise. It’s been evident from the evening we arrived. Tired from the flight, train trip and Uber ride that were required to reach our hotel, and shivering from the rain, we stepped out to grab a quick, easy meal.

Pork knuckle from Mr Meat
Pork knuckle from Mr Meat

If Taiwan were to pick a national dish, beef noodles may be it. The dish was introduced by veterans of the Chinese Civil War. Today it is available everywhere and there is no point picking the “best” one — in Taipei’s first Michelin Guide, eight of 36 Bib Gourmand recipients were beef noodle shops. The shop we now call our own is Longtang Limian, which literally translates to “inside the alley”.

We walked into Longtang Limian near closing time. The light from its single window spilled onto the street, a quiet lane in the affluent Da’an district. Unlike the slicker, well-staffed shops around it, this simple joint was run by a young couple who served customers 10 hours a day.

Tamed Fox
Tamed Fox
A noodle shop in the shadow of the Taipei 101 building
A noodle shop in the shadow of the Taipei 101 building

The place was empty except for one customer waiting for his takeaway. For a minute, he silently watched us trying to read the menu with Google Translate. Then, he leaned over, and whispered in a conspiratorial tone, “The beef noodles are very good.” And that was how our first evening in Taiwan turned from an unremarkable travel day to a memorable one slurping egg noodles and braised beef doused in a rich, dark, spicy broth. It was exactly the warm welcome we needed.

Cebu Pacific flies to Taipei from Manila. cebupacificair.com

This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Timi Siytangco

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