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Articles Blog

Taipei, Taiwan

Karyn Planett

The New and the Old

Type A. Face to the future. Well educated. Young. On the move. And true to the definition, the young people of Taiwan are competitive, work-oriented, driven to succeed. Other personality characteristics aren’t part of this review, just the broad brushstroke of a motivated populace. What’s noted here is the mobility of a youthful population. And, of Taiwan’s nearly 24 million people, less than 12% are aged 65 or over. For the record, everyone lives in an area measuring a mere 14,000 square miles, hence this is one of the world’s most densely-populated places. To compare, Taiwan is about the same size as Connecticut and Massachusetts combined. So you don’t have to do the math yourself, that means something like 1,600 people share an area equaling only one square mile. Think … really crowded. But in the nation’s capital, where you may be going, that number increases to a whopping 25,000 people per square mile living cheek to jowl on just about every square inch they can find. Thankfully, though, open space has been dedicated across the island nation so a day trip out of the city to a glorious mountain range is often just what the doctor orders. There are stunning peaks, dramatic gorges, ribbony waterfalls, and endless hiking trails.

More than 96% of Taiwan’s citizens can read and write. Perhaps that’s why fewer than 2% of the people live below the poverty line. In fact, you’ll quickly discover that the young people have a strong penchant for consumerism. Knowing about and owning the hottest designer handbags and spiky shoes, sexy sunglasses and winning wristwatches as well as the very latest techno-tricks no matter the cost is a must.

That is Now, This was Then

As a thumbnail sketch of thousands of years of history, just know that the vast majority of Taiwan’s citizens identify themselves as provincial people. Their name, benshengren, distinguishes them from the descendants of those who arrived on Taiwan’s shores in 1949 along with Chiang-Kai-shek. It was during those turbulent times in China that some two million people fled to Taiwan as his followers. They and their offspring are called daluren, meaning “from the mainland”. And let’s not forget the yuanzhumin whose ancestors were here first. They are considered aborigines and represent less than 2% of the population. They live mostly in the mountains and remote areas. And each of these unique communities has left an artistic and cultural imprint on this tiny island nation that measures only about 245 miles long, 95 miles wide.

Not surprisingly, this land is a temple to technology. Who can say what the up-to-the-minute stats are but just know that Taiwan is a major, repeat major, manufacturer in the computer world. Everything from laptops to desktops. And if you have a computer question, stop a-n-y-o-n-e on the streets and ask for help. These whiz kids do know it all.

Time is Short

Best get going if you’re in the mood for some great sightseeing. It’s hard to imagine coming to Taipei and not visiting the National Palace Museum whether you’re a museum buff or not. But be ready because this landmark holds the world’s largest collection of Chinese artifacts, though not all are on view at once.

Here’s the story. As long ago as 200 BC, Chinese emperors amassed a huge collection of valuable pieces including everything from bronzes to calligraphy, porcelains to portraits, sculptures and carvings, laquerware to jade. These artifacts remained in Beijing’s Forbidden City until 1931 when the Japanese forces overran Manchuria. Spirited out of Beijing, the majority of the collection survived even bombing raids. Shortly after the end of WWII, the public was able to view this impressive collection on exhibition in Nanjing for the very first time. Then, hostilities erupted again, this time between the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT (the Chinese Nationalist Party called Kuomintang) under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. This civil war caused such turmoil that the art collection was moved again, this time offshore to the port of Keelung. As the original intention was to return to mainland China, the powers that be weren’t interested in creating a permanent venue for this art. Time passed. Ideas changed. Ultimately, in 1965, the pieces found a permanent home in the National Palace Museum. Four years of recent renovation has resulted in the museum you see today. For the record, there is a mainland China contingent that believes these items should be returned to their rightful home in mainland China. Best not get into that discussion. And, best put on your “patience” hat because the crowds here can be rather daunting.

Other sites worthy of your time, knowing that the National Palace Museum alone could take weeks to explore, are the National Martyr’s Shrine and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. The first is a tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice during China’s wars. The latter, also known as the CKS Memorial Hall, took its inspiration from Beijing’s Temple of Heaven.

Of course there are a million other important sites to see and neighborhoods to explore and designer shops to visit and restaurants to sample. Time is of the essence so a tight plan will serve you best. Remember, though, you’ve got to get back to the port before departure time to tell your friends all about your excellent adventures.