Taiwan in pictures

Welcome to Keelung…


The first time I ever visited Taiwan, the place was emerging from decades of dictatorship. Compared with Hong Kong it was grim and colourless, and even kids’ school uniforms had an oppressive police-state look about them. Nowadays the country is full of democracy, freedom, trendy coffee shops and creative arty cultural scenes. With Beijing taming and muzzling Hong Kong, Taiwan increasingly feels like a parallel universe – a China without the insecurities and obsessions of the Communist TWN-bldgone-party state.

One visible constant is a relentless utilitarianism and lack of pretentiousness. Or, to put it more bluntly, the place looks like crap. Apart from the ridiculous Taipei 101 skyscraper, just about every building on the island is a grey, grimy block with a tin roof; the picture of some apartments on the right came out massively flattering.

They’re just not interested in making the place look like something it isn’t (compare with Shanghai, desperate to impress with its laborious wannabe-Hong Kong skyline). Even painting or tiling a concrete exterior is beyond local architects’ imaginations or just too much hassle. I once heard that the old Kuomintang regime refused to tart the place up because they would all be moving back to the Mainland one day. Another theory is that this non-aesthetic is a hangover from Japanese rule (dangling telephone wires uglify every street, as in Korea). Whatever it is, after the buffoonish edifices elsewhere in Asia – Petronas Towers, Marina Bay, CCTV’s ‘big pants’ – it’s a relief.

Taiwan dazzles with less superficial things. Chief among these is the aforementioned social and political environment, which shreds Beijing’s whole ‘Chinese characteristics’ baloney (and is a work in progress, the latest talk being of a parliamentary system). Coming a close second, is food. There are probably some pretty average places to eat – perhaps the countless plastic Japanese ramen/sushi places. Mostly, though, Taiwan is a big, if unsung, gourmet paradise…


The fill-your-own lunchbox places are everywhere. The meal in the middle is from a small vegetarian counter, and cost a whole HK$15 (it is difficult to spend much in Taiwan: a vivid lesson in the benefits of low rents). The red bowl contains a ‘miner’s lunchbox’, a fake tradition like the ploughman’s lunch in British pubs. In this case, it is aimed at the small number of tourists who pass through a remote former coal-producing village in the hills, so the little restaurant could easily get away with selling something drab. But it was excellent: pork chop, tea-egg, greens, tofu, pickles and seaweed on rice, eaten at rough wooden tables and benches in what seems to be a genuine soot-stained former miners’ canteen. The dishes on the right are spaghetti. Taipei is Asia’s little-known pasta hub. Not sure why the Taiwanese have gone Italian in such a big way – maybe it makes a change from ordinary noodles. Seen in a supermarket: Quaker ginseng and own-brand, no-frills pineapple cakes, just as good as the pricy ones in fancy packaging.

The old coal-mining district…


Desolated pit communities have tried to reinvent themselves as tourist destinations. One place has become Cat Village; another sells lanterns that people release into the sky in emulation of a scene in a mawkish romantic movie. As a result, part of this train ride is crowded with Mainlanders and Hongkongers, and therefore ideal if you’re feeling homesick for the MTR. After that, it’s a damp, misty, post-industrial semi-wilderness, with a dash of West Virginia and South Wales about it. The driver won’t set off unless he’s carrying a unique big brass medallion – a low-tech way to ensure that only one train is on the track at any time.

Meanwhile back in Taipei, giant stuffed toys are taking over…


…and someone important must have died – why don’t we do funeral processions like this in Hong Kong?


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17 Responses to Taiwan in pictures

  1. Chinese Netizen says:

    I often tell mainlanders that if they really want to see Chinese culture and a civilized China, they need to go visit Taiwan.
    Perhaps the buildings are done up in the way you dislike as a preparation for earthquake damage minimization?
    I’ve always found that every time I go to Taiwan there are new little hidden gems of culture and projects by civil society groups that make the place even more of a delight. Things the CCP would never, ever let its own prisoners…uh, I mean citizens…do.

  2. PD says:

    Welcome back!

    And may you long continue to entertain and inform us!

  3. PD says:

    Tainan, despite its out-of-the airport-in-5-minutes charm and direct flight from HK, and despite its prestigious past, is similarly dowdy and down at heel.

    My own explanation, for what its worth, and in over-concise form, is that Chinese society is collectivist and so attuned to ambitious, gungho, shiny, big edifices designed for the public view. Individualism is frowned on, which may explain why maintenance or creativity or saving the past are less valued.

  4. reductio says:

    Why on earth would Taiwan want to return to the warm embrace of the Motherland?


    Raffy Hui: definitely found guilty
    Kwoks: Mmm.. 50-50
    Kwan the Bag Man: ditto


  5. Taiwanese living in HK says:

    I am from Taiwan originally.

    The food there is good and cheap, and the low rent and cost of living are both positives. It certainly isn’t paradise on earth, though.

    And do watch what you eat. There are unscrupulous businessmen selling low quality cooking oil not fit for human consumption, which do find their way into packaged food and restaurants.

  6. NIMBY says:


    One of the best ways to sumarize the difference is to watch the Taiwan version of the national anthem vs. the PRC bombastic kill kill kill version.

  7. Arno says:

    Welcome Back to the Big Lychee….be reassured nothing happens here the last few days, month, years..
    Same righteous Beijing shoe-shiners claiming victory over the horde of teenager armed with lethal umbrellas.
    Those barbarian singing evil foreign-influenced slogan were so disturbing for the “ordinary citizens” and the great elite of the Fragrant Harbor.
    But our great local helmsman has declared to the world that the ” Occupy Central movement is over”….. he didn’t had time to install a aircraft carrier in Victoria Harbor to make his declaration but the spirit was there.

  8. MonkeyFish says:

    Taiwanese people may appear to be more civilized Hemlock, but in truth they are more like disobedient children – naughty naughty believing what they want (self determination, a political economy rooted in institutionalized individual rights) is more important than what Mommy and Daddy want (imposition of an authoritarian system, suppression of dissent, political control) – this shows they have yet to realize their own true superior Chinese nature of constant, lifelong submission to an external, supposedly benevolent (just make sure you keep your eyes on your internal organs there sah, wouldn’t want to lose those now wudja?), external authority.

    The fact that you have failed to realize this *obvious* *indisputable* *fact*, is obviously and indisputably because of the foreign colonial running dog ideology that infects your consciousness, that is a throwback to feudal times and the great humiliation of Our Great Nation.

    If you would like to rejoin Our Great Nation, and participate in Our Great Renaissance, and …. Dream our Great Chinese dream, I might recommend that for your next trip you stop by one of our lovely rural retreats in Gansu – clean water, clean air, daily outdoorsy activities (compulsory), not much food but a lot of ideological sustenance for you (and who needs food when correct thinking fills your body?) …. Just make sure you keep an eye on your organs there sah, wouldn’t want to lose them now wudja?

  9. Scotty Dotty says:

    Welcome back, Hemmers. Life without your blog has been almost incomplete!

    Taiwan is a cool place – even though the pre-1949 inhabitants are not so happy how the Nationalists steamed over the island.

    But unlike China Taiwan has had no Cultural Revolution, no Great Leap Forward, no killing of tens of millions of their own citizens. And seventy years on from the split, Taiwan is four times as wealthy per capita

    GDP – Taiwan $23k/head and China 6k/head

    Says a lot!

  10. Hills says:

    Why don’t we handover Hong Kong to Taiwan, under the slogan 2 countries, 1 system?

  11. NIMBY says:

    Hi Taiwanese living in Hong Kong.

    I went to graduate school in Taiwan, back when CKS’s son ran the place like China is run now. I use to be pretty certain food safety now is slightly better, unfortunately on my last trip there I found they now have even more unscrupulous sellers of unfit food than in the past – McDonalds for one.

  12. gumshoe says:

    The best thing I saw about Taiwan when I was there were people smiling and saying “Good Morning”.

  13. PCC says:

    Taiwan is a cold, unfriendly, unhygienic, ugly, awful, terrible, barbaric, lawless and non-English-speaking place that no sensible person would ever want to visit, live in, invest in or do business in (says the desperate, penurious and perspicacious individual who intends to relocate there).

  14. Chinese Netizen says:

    @Arno: LoL!!! Yes…”Mission accomplished!” May the citizens of HK sleep peacefully at night…

  15. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    I’m a big fan of Taiwan.

    However, Keelung has a strange marketing experiment in New York, with posters on the subway showing a few cliches of Chinese architecture, a dumpling, some Taiwan Mando-pop pretty boy group billed as “the Beatles of Asia” and the current mayor.

    At best, the first two may appeal to the average New Yorker who actually has a passport, the third is bemusing at best, while the last smacks of shameless and bewildering self promotion with traditional Chinese characteristics.

  16. Get yourself in the public hot springs. Beitou in north Taipei as good as anywhere. Tons of old farts at all times of day happy to chat with you, exchange superstitions, etc. Pretty much exactly on your wavelength.

    And don’t forget to pick up a dog perambulator while in Taiwan. They are not easy to get in other places, inexplicably. In Taipei there is specialist outlet selling them on every thoroughfare.

    Finally, I sometimes wonder whether Taiwan isn’t so nice now because all the nastiest men have gone to work in mainland China. Is that possible?

  17. Laguna Lurker says:

    “Why don’t we do funeral processions like this in Hong Kong?”

    Because there’s no one “important” worthy of such public respect.

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