Saturday, 9 November 2013

Taipei Day One: Past and Present

Dramatic clouds gathering over the National Palace Museum at sunset
The last time I was in Taipei was in the early 90s when the government sponsored young overseas Chinese from North America to go to Taiwan to experience Chinese culture in the hopes they would come back later and work and/or invest in the country.

The entrance to the museum, home to 650,000 treasures
We were given VIP treatment with police escorts wherever we visited, taught "bo po mo fo", the special symbols Taiwanese use to verbally spell out characters and inducted into the world of karaoke.

I still remember going to the National Palace Museum and being annoyed that no one showed any particular attention to the fantastic treasures from the Forbidden City that Chiang Kai-shek had carefully whisked away from the communists.

These trips were nicknamed "The Love Boat" because it was the perfect platform for teenagers to hook up with members of the opposite sex and sneak out of the dorms at night to go drinking and clubbing.

However after several incidents involving inebriated students, the government decided to close down the program, but also probably they weren't getting their return on investment...

A computer scans you to create a vase design
Other than that I don't remember much about Taipei except for hanging out with my Taiwanese cousins on the weekends.

So some 20 years later it's interesting to return and see how things have changed.

While the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport looks impressive with its slanted roof and granite floors in the immigration area, the baggage area is quite small.

The drive into the city is a nice sight, as it's quite hilly, but completely covered in trees with verdant leaves. They are not planted there like those that line the highway in Beijing, but have been there naturally for who knows how long.

We passed by The Grand Hotel, which I stayed in on my first trip to Taiwan when I was a kid. My second reference to it was watching Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman, where the main character is the top chef in the hotel. My mouth still waters whenever I think of the opening scene...

Our tour guide told us that Chiang and his wife Soong Mei-ling loved to stay in The Grand Hotel not only for its panoramic views of the city, but also because its location had very good feng shui. She also told us there were secret tunnels that were for Chiang to escape in case of danger. She said the tunnels end up at the river, but Wikipedia says they end at nearby parks and can accommodate up to 10,000 people.

Animated portraits of people. Can you spot me in the picture?
Soon after we arrived at the National Palace Museum. Apparently it's crowded with Japanese and mainland tourists on the weekends, but it's hardly anything like elbowing your way through Sogo in Causeway Bay. There were lots of people, but line ups went fast.

There are 650,000 items in the museum. The Taiwanese are very proud of Chiang for protecting the imperial treasures and perhaps he thought that by bringing these priceless items that represented power from the Forbidden City, it would give him the moral authority to rule China.

To save time our guide took us to see the prized possessions of the museum: the bai cai or jadeite cabbage. It's not the highest quality jade, the guide says, but the carver has done an excellent job with it.

The famous jadeite bai cai with two katydids
It was meant to be a dowry for the emperor's consort and the whiteness of the jade represents the consort's purity, while the two katydids, one small and one large symbolizing the imperial couple, mean that they love each other profoundly for eternity.

Next to it is a piece of natural rock that looks like dong po rou, or a piece of braised pork belly. Only the top was manipulated with an artisan's hand to make it look like pork skin.

I remembered seeing these pieces and feeling so impressed by them, but seeing them again I was surprised I was blinded by my memories. I remembered the dong po rou glistening and a large piece, but in reality it was a small triangular "slice" and the colours were such that it looked like it was going mouldy! The cabbage just wasn't as appealing as I thought it was many years ago.

A slice of braised pork belly from natural stone
Nevertheless we were still amazed by the intricate carvings on ivory, rhinoceros horn, even walnut shells. No one knows how the artisans carved 17 layers within one ivory ball and the magnifying glasses revealed amazing artistry, thanks to the patronage of the Emperor Qianlong.

We also saw a large bronze cauldron called Mao Gong Ding. In it there are 500 Chinese characters carved, where King Xuan declares his need to depend on the Duke of Mao to help him bring stability in the late Zhou period.

What was also neat about the museum was an interactive multimedia area. People who were depicted in paintings came to life in animation, greeting us in various languages. In one area there was a large white vase. Each person stands on a special platform and moves the arms and body while the computer scans them and creates a new design on the vase. Another took a picture of us and made us into an animated character in what looked like a computer game.

A culinary interpretation of the jadeite bai cai at Silks Palace
Next to the museum is a restaurant called Silks Palace run by The Regent hotel. It's a beautiful setting inside with lots of dark wood that looks traditional but simultaneously modern too. We had a private room where we ate a set lunch of braised shredded sea cucumber with fish maw soup, stir-fried pork ribs, Cantonese dim sum and stir-fried shrimp balls with sea whelk.

One of the highlights was the jadeite cabbage with dried shrimps and was presented much like the one in the museum. To eat it we had to place the cabbage on the plate, pour the conpoy sauce on top of it and then eat it with a fork and knife. An artistic treat.


  1. Hahahaha! You told me you had been to Taiwan before but I didn't realise that it was on a "love boat"!

    BTW, did you know that the museum underwent a 5 year renovation earlier this century? I delayed my visit to Taipei until after the renovation was completed! )

    1. HI YTSL -- the museum looked a bit different from before. Apparently they want to expand but there's no land for them to do that...