Beef brisket noodles endorsed by President Ma Ying-jeou; perverted Japanese personal care products; fortune-telling businesses in underground malls; militia-drilling; children cleaning their own elementary schools in all weathers; men who eschew tacky designer labels; women who sport plain black hair beneath simple berets; and youngsters who think it is better to spend money on studying overseas than at gaudy, overpriced restaurants. And understated smiling and pleasantness.
There’s only so much of all this you can take before you need a taste of home. Especially when there seems to be an almost complete absence of street-level real estate agencies to satisfy your aching need to peruse local property prices. Fortunately, anyone pining for Hong Kong during a visit to Taipei can nowadays, if they look in the right places, find one familiar comfort: Mainland tourists.
Last year, Taiwan received 1.63 million leisure travellers from China – about the same number Hong Kong gets every 45 minutes. The entire 200-mile-long island has a quota of 4,000 a day (something for Causeway Bay to consider). So if you’re missing the drowning-in-oceans-of-them experience, you have to look hard. The best place is that piece of jade carved like a cabbage at the National Palace Museum. Like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, it is what everyone comes to see and coo over regardless of the fact that in real life it is a disappointment. The other jade displays are also popular for the Mainland groups, which average over a dozen each in size, thus necessitating the guides to shout each other down in order to be heard by their chattering charges.
I recall this place when it was silent, dusty and deserted and the 10% of the massive collection on show at any one time had badly typed, faded yellow labels. All gone, like the dodo. It is a slick institution now. It was intended as temporary storage for the ultimate collection of China’s treasures – originally founded in 1920s Beijing – pending the recapture of the Mainland from the Communist bandits. Like other long-overdue refurbishment of Taiwan’s grimy and faded built environment, this modernization can be viewed as acceptance that ‘reunion’ with a CCP-controlled China is a historical inevitability, or a final, implicit abandonment of the pretence that this is anything other than an independent country – according to taste, so everyone’s happy.
As well as the inevitable Falun Gong who gather wherever Mainlanders go, the National Palace Museum currently hosts a little outdoor photo-opportunity/shrine commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China. To Beijing propagandists, this year is the centenary of the Xinhai Revolution, which brought down the Qing Dynasty. At most, the entity following the empire is known as ‘The Republic of China (1911-1949)’, and the period is taught in schools as (not without reason) a nightmarish period of warlordism and corruption. In Taiwan, 2011 is presented as the centenary of the nation. (In Hong Kong, the issue causes extreme obsessive-compulsive amendment of Legislative Council motions.)
The tourists seem unfazed by the flagrant violations of the sacred ‘One China’ principle they see all around them. Interestingly, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall seems to be a bigger draw than the Sun Yat-sen one. CKS was for a long time demonized (Beijing allowed a bowdlerized version of his papers to be published only last year), yet the Mainlanders jostle to have their photos taken before his statue and the white sun of the ROC banner. Of course, the Mainland is full of Sun Yat-sen Memorial Halls. It could also be because the CKS megalith is the more impressive, and has the more eye-catching changing of the guard ceremony at extremely frequent regular intervals – a far more stylish and entertaining bit of martial choreography than the dreary PLA flag-raising thing (rifle-twirling starts after 2.30 here). But context does not seem to be included in the tour package.