Rice fields and houses with small vegetable gardens stud both sides of the highway from the airport to the city center of Taipei, giving a glimpse of how agriculture is still an important part of many Taiwanese despite the world-renown high-tech industries of the country. Verdant hills and ornate Chinese temples rise among the fields, reminders of how the locals are doing their best to preserve the environment and their culture. However as our bus goes deeper into the city, blocks of dreary high-rise residences covered in uninspiring bathroom tiles create a rather dull ambiance to the city.
Taipei has become the provisional capital of the Republic of China (ROC) – better known as Taiwan – since the Chinese nationalist party of Kuomintang resettled to the island in 1949 following their defeat from the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. Based on the constitution of Taiwan the capital of the country is Nanjing – today one of the biggest cities in Mainland China – a fact that has become one of the perennial issues straining the relations between the two countries across the strait.
Historically Taiwan has been an integral part of China since the late 17th century following the Dutch and Spanish rules a few decades earlier. In the late 19th century the Japanese annexed the island until their defeat in the World War II. They not only made the island merely a colony but also developed the infrastructure – the railways, sanitation system, and formal education system to name some. All were instrumental in propelling Taiwan to be one of Asia’s foremost economic powers decades later.
Today Taipei boosts a wealth of Japanese heritage including government offices and old wooden houses. “These alleys look like in Japan” James explains to me while walking down Yongkang Street – where narrow alleys crisscross one another.
When the Nationalists’ campaign against the Japanese in the mainland culminated, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the evacuation of Forbidden City’s most valuable treasures to prevent them from falling to the hands of the Japanese. However after the defeat from the Communists, Chiang Kai-shek further commanded the evacuation of those artifacts to Taiwan. Despite the unsuccessful effort to transport all of them to Taiwan, those which made it to the island were some of the best, finest and most exquisite treasures from 8,000 years of Chinese history. Today nearly 700,000 artifacts call the National Palace Museum in Taipei their home – making it one of the largest museums in the world.
James and I walk around the Peace Memorial Park after escaping a rather bizarre morning conversation with an old woman dressed in untidy dark clothes but surprisingly spoke good English near the main train station. Chirping sparrows and students playing violins break the silence of the park, an oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle. Walking further south a wide avenue stretches from the presidential office – built during the Japanese occupation – all the way to Jingfu Gate (East Gate) – one of the five historic gates of Taipei. On both sides of the avenue large flags of Taiwan and the Marshall Islands – one of the very few countries which maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan – are hoisted.
Before the 1970s most western countries maintained diplomatic relations with the ROC. However since the UN recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as China’s sole representative in the organization in 1971, other countries gradually switched their recognition to the PRC. To date only 23 countries still maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei instead of Beijing. However most countries do maintain unofficial relations with ROC through its economic and cultural offices around the world.
The ROC has since repeatedly bidden for UN membership, to no avail. On their latest attempt in 2007 the ROC decided to use the name ‘Taiwan’ instead of strictly imposing the name ‘Republic of China’ in their UN membership bid. As was the case with the previous membership bids, it was also rejected by the UN.
Walking further eastward, we find one of Taipei’s most distinguished landmarks. Sitting at the far end of a vast square flanked by the colorful National Concert Hall and National Theater, the whitewashed wall of the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall stands elegantly, topped by an octagonal blue-tiled roof. Entering the main hall after climbing 89 steps – representing Chiang Kai-shek’s age at the time of his death – a smiling bronze statue of the Generalissimo sits under a caisson ceiling decorated with the emblem of Kuomintang, the Nationalist Party.
Beneath the concrete structure a large hall functions as the exhibition center and the museum of the memorial hall. Walking inside, we stop for a while, fixated to the words printed on a large banner in a rather propagandistic tone praising the late Generalissimo. Some people might find it painful as Chiang Kai-shek imposed dictatorship during his rule and declared Martial Law in 1948 which was not repealed until 1987 – one of the longest periods of martial law in modern history.
Despite its depressing past, today Taiwan is a thriving democracy with one of the highest GDP per capita in Asia. Almost all computers’ motherboards in the world are manufactured in Taiwan, as well as various components of electronic devices marketed throughout the globe. Taipei 101 – the tallest building in the world from 2004 until 2010 when Burj Khalifa in Dubai was completed – becomes the icon of a modern Taiwan which at the same time still holds on traditional values.
Even though things seem promising today, the uncertainties remain and the public is still widely divided. Taiwan will always continue to seek for the best solution for its people and the inter-strait relations. In the meantime it opens its heart to welcome visitors who want to do business, do the shopping spree, indulge in culinary adventure, or venture to the beautiful landscapes of the south.