Like an SMS from the dentist saying it is six months since your last check-up, my once-a-decade, few-days visit to Taiwan is suddenly due. I tried to say “can’t we just skip it this one time – after all, the place will still be there in 2021?” but no go.
Taiwan is a strange place under a banal veneer. Originally inhabited by the same sort of jungle-dwellers that peopled the Philippines, Chinese from Fujian began settling centuries (or millennia, according to taste) ago. The Japanese ran it from the late 19th Century to 1945. China’s Republican KMT government fled to the island with US aid and other purloined loot and Mandarin-speaking retinues after they lost the civil war in 1949. The corporatist police state that followed was, to many ‘native’ (Fujianese-speaking) Taiwanese, worse than the Japanese.
As the rightful rulers of the Republic of China, the KMT focused largely on re-taking the mainland, even after the PRC displaced them from the UN and won recognition as the sole government of China from the US. The country turned into a bustling centre of small and medium enterprises churning out components for Japanese electronics firms, but had no official sovereign status in most of the world’s eyes. In the late 1980s, dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s son Ching-kuo, realizing that dislodging the Communist bandits might have to wait, allowed democratic elections and started replacing crumbling Japanese-era buildings with some up-to-date architecture and infrastructure.
Today, the place is a different planet, with a vibrant (as in fetching female legislators beating each other up in parliament) political culture and free press, a less-corrupt-than-before legal system, a resurgent ‘native’ pro-independence movement, and a largely happy, prosperous Japanese-tinged society of pre-Communist, non-anglicized Chinese who are into offbeat Buddhist sects, urine-drinking, Hello Kitty hospitals, a gloriously crass and vulgar local edition of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, charming toilet restaurants and much more. According to Beijing, they are an inseparable part of the Chinese nation yearning to be united with the glorious motherland. This idea prompted barely stifled, slightly enigmatic titters of amusement last time I was there. Let’s see how it is going down now.