Thursday, June 22, 2017

A foreigner's welcome to Liu's Bakery

Since we've arrived in Taiwan, we've been seeing this commercial on TV.  To outward appearances, it's an elderly KMT general brandishing a pistol, suggesting you buy his biscuits or else.  They mystery was killing me, I needed to know what he was saying, and so I scoured the internet.  What he seemed to be selling was branded "Nutricom," so I found an e-mail for Nutricom USA, asking if they knew of the ad and if they could clarify.  Happily, this venerable gent's daughter is in charge over in Florida, and she translated.  Turns out his name is George Liu, and he's selling wheat germ.

"Nutricom has given me strong health and vitality.  This old soldier has none of the Three Highs (cholesterol, blood pressure, sugar).  Modern people eat too well, but rich diets have come to kill!  Nutricom is the weapon to defend your health.  Come to Liu's Bakery and garrison your health.  And don't forget to try our new Sun Biscuits!"

That's a bit of a paraphrase, but essentially it.  His daughter then surprised me with an e-mail saying George wanted to meet me.  A TV celebrity and war hero, how could I resist?  A date was set and I started hunting around for a suitable present.  In Chinese culture, exchanging small gifts is de rigeur, and given his advanced age and venerability, I wanted to make sure I found something to match.  I found a small bonsai tree in a pot, which I thought bespoke dignity and longevity.

It was a rainy morning, so I took a cab to the bakery.  No sooner had I walked in and asked for him, George was right behind me, surrounded by a gaggle of family.  He is a very happy patriarch, and, indeed, very robust for 92.  He saluted, which I returned (Semper paratus!), and he saluted again, this time for my beard.  (It's nothing back home but Taiwanese think it virile and really like it.)  He accepted my gift and we paused for a photo opportunity.  He would tell you his English is poor (it isn't), but he was very jocular and on our way up to his office, he told me he had seven children and 17 grandchildren.  He asked me if I had any children and I said no, and then he offered to give me a few of his as he had some to spare!

We settled in upstairs in a windowless office, nevertheless furnished with chairs made of the tropical hardwoods and tung oil for which Taiwan is famous.  The walls were covered in calligraphy scrolls, which I later learned were George's own handiwork.  He called for tea, and his youngest daughter, visiting from the U.S., translated as necessary.  As I said, George's English is good, but like most people over a certain age, his hearing is diminished.  It's difficult enough to hold a conversation in a foreign language, but especially if you can't hear clearly.

George was born on the Mainland and served in the National Revolutionary Army of the KMT, under Chiang Kai-shek.  He evacuated the mainland for Taiwan in 1949, and, apart from a stint in Florida, has been there ever since.  He left the army and has been in the baking business since 1959.  George is a physical fellow, and likes to touch your hand and shoulder while talking.  In this way, he leaned in to offer a correction: He was a major in the army, not a general, but unlike all of the generals today, he's actually been to war!  I was half-certain the next thing he would say would be to challenge me to arm-wrestle.

A religious man, George got his start in delivering bread by bicycle at the suggestion of a Canadian missionary.  (Allow me to insert a "God save the Queen".)  Indeed, he was wearing a Gideons Society tie that proclaimed Jesus as Lord.  Do you know where God is, he asked.  Up, I gestured.  Yes, but also here, he said, pointing to his chest.  "God is love.  People kill in the name of religion.  But if you have love, everything in the world will turn out fine.  No wars, no hatred," he beamed brightly.

He's had a few near-scrapes with death in his life that I suspect have sharpened his sense of God's agency in his life.  During the Chinese Civil War, he accidentally shot his foot through his holster.  While he was laid up in sickbay, his unit was all but obliterated by the Communists.  "That gun saved my life," he said.  Another time, he was on leave to see his parents, and his mother had made jiaozi, or dumplings.  Oh, I'm sick of them and I'm late in getting back anyway, he said.  His father took him aside and said, Why don't you just have a seat, eat some, and make your poor mother happy?  So he did, and ended up missing his unit's departure.  As with the gunshot wound, his unit was wiped out and his life spared.

The gun in his commercials was a replica, and he let me hold it.  But George values it as a happy reminder of the gun's part in God's plan for his life.  He showed me his major's uniform and photos, recently taken, of how well he had been received on the mainland as an old veteran, on the outskirts of Beijing where he has established a local factory.  These mementos (and also TV commercial props) he keeps in a small bedroom adjacent to his office, which he casually but in all seriousness offered to lend me when I'm next in town.

By the time the war was over, George was in Taiwan and again in sickbay with tuberculosis.  There's no hope for you, he was told, it's just a matter of time.  It was then that he found religion.  Besides, he had too many buddies to avenge to just give up and die!  So Jesus cured him, but he had yet to embrace humility.  What sins do I have to repent of? he asked.  He was out of the army, with no job prospects and no girls who would marry him without one.  His Canadian missionary friend suggested selling bread to the U.S. military.  Around this time he had the breakthrough realization that "God is love," he forgave his enemies, and things started to click for him.

Indistinct from his business interests, George has long been on a crusade to improve people's health.  People eat such garbage, he says, echoing concerns I've had across East Asia, as people increasingly adopt Western foods.  Ever notice the oldest person alive is usually Japanese?  There's a reason for it.  They traditionally don't eat sugar, refined carbs, and vegetable oils, which are central features of the Western diet.

George's magic bullet is wheat germ, which, compared to regular white flour, is high in protein and bran.  I tasted a bun modeled after the ones he ate in the Nationalist army, made from whole wheat flour.  It was dense, but good.  George watched me very closely to see if the bun would meet with my approval.  And it did.  It is dense but toothsome, and, from my experience of American rations, better than anything they vacuum-pack as MREs. (Okay, I admit: I really like the maple nut-cake dessert.  The squeeze cheese and cracker are a guilty pleasure.)

As with other visitors, George had me write in his diary to memorialize the event.  I was sure to endorse his nutritional theory, as I'd seen what the Western diet was doing to the Taiwanese, as it has done to us back home.  Indeed, refined carbohydrates and added sugars are killing us, and everyone abroad to whom we export our diet.  Acknowledging his age, saying he doesn't think God will grant him more than two or three years (may he get 20!), but he says he is writing a book that will encapsulate all his nutritional theories.  I have nothing to add to his wisdom save that he might read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food.  It might be complex for his English, but he has very patient and loving daughters to translate for him.

He had another appointment for the afteroon, so we had to bring the meeting to a close, but he generously sent me away with samples, literature, and several Chinese Bibles.  I've said before that you don't give a priest a Bible for a present because he likely already has 30, but I make an exception for foreign language editions.  I was just barely manageably laden down with treasures, and I must have looked quite the sight walking the half-mile back to the apartment.

I left Taiwan (this entry having taken me a few months to complete) just as George had asked me to dinner.  I countered that my wife would be in Taiwan this July (as it turns out she won't) but he said he would be summering in Florida (you would have to have experienced Taiwan to understand the logic!).  I don't know when or how but I hope to see George again.  But I feel as though I have more to learn, and he has more to teach.  And beside all that, he is just a damned pleasant fellow.  I will treasure what time I had with him, and if God adds an hour or two, I will be grateful all the years of my life.

I don't know how they say it in Chinese, but as they said at my ordination as a bishop, Ad multos annos—to many years!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Long weekend in Hong Kong, part II

After another excellent breakfast (the Sheraton puts on quite the spread), we headed over to the Hong Kong History Museum.  Immediately we were confronted by a display of 2/3rds-size Star Wars stormtroopers, and then advertisements for a toy exhibit, including Transformers and Gundam.  It would appear the museum knows where the money's at, and is reorienting itself accordingly.  However, the original history exhibit was still there and free, so we went in.

We first toured a section on the formation and geology of the area, followed by prehistoric artifacts and life-size dioramas of paleolithic society.  The next section was the ethnography of South China in the Qing Era, so I assume nothing happened between 8,000 B.C. and 300 years ago.  We saw the floating home of some Boatdwellers, a shy Cantonese people who spend much of their lives afloat; and mockups of a bourgeois home and a humbler city dwelling.  There was a section on Chinese opera and lion dances, a giant festival tower made of buns, and a mockup of a Taoist temple.

The next section was colonial history, starting with the Opium Wars, followed by the British opening up shop and the founding of HSBC.  There were mockups of upper- and middle-class Chinese homes, a grocery, and printing and telegraphy offices, all in a replica Hong Kong neighborhood from 1900.  Then we wound our way to displays relating to the Japanese invasion in 1942.  Unlike Taiwan, Hongkongers did not find Japanese occupation to be a pleasant thing.  Still, they didn't dwell on Japanese atrocities much, and half the display was given over to the Japanese surrender in 1945.

Post-WWII was an economic boom for Hong Kong, in both banking and manufacturing, culminating in the roaring 1980s.  We milled past bright, shiny consumer goods and trappings of prosperity.  At this point, however, there began to be mentions made of the 1997 handover, and as the exhibit continued, and we came closer to the date, I became increasingly depressed.  Hong Kong, after all, was British.  They had never experienced republican or Communist rule.  It was a bit of a betrayal and not unlike trying to hand Florida back to the Spanish.

(Though, every U.S. presidential election, I seriously give the idea thought.  Maybe the French would like the Louisiana Purchase back, too.)

The exhibit more or less ended with the handover, as though time had stopped in 1997.  Of course it hadn't, but discussing events since then would be necessarily political, and HKers have felt like they've been treading water the last 20 years, with Beijing looming larger and larger in their lives.  We left the museum, had lunch at a Thai restaurant, seated beneath the paternal and reassuring gaze of the late Thai King Rama IX.  We then hoofed it back to the hotel, booked a harbor cruise for the evening, and had a nap.

Our first choice of conveyance, a motor junk with red sails, was booked up already, and the next evening wouldn't be available as HK was going dark for Earth Hour.  So we got tickets for a more conventional vessel, which happened to be twice as long a ride and with an open bar.  At the appointed hour after dark, we boarded the two-deck passenger boat and headed to the open upper deck.  Most nights, the skyscrapers put on a coordinated lights-and-laser show.  It's not as amusing as they sell it to be. But I had some nice watery Chinese beer, Laura had her cocktail, and once the light show was over, simply enjoyed being afloat, by turns overhauling or being overhauled by the red junk, our nautical dance partner.

Eventually we were put back ashore, and Laura, having had two rum-and-Cokes, was feeling munchy.  Lucky for us, food trucks lined the way back to the hotel.  We ended up with fried dumplings, scallion-and-ham pancakes, a strangely sweet montecristo sandwich, and something intriguingly branded a "Burger of Sorrow".  This turned out to be an egg on a porkchop on a bun, and the "Sorrow" part was a reference to a classic Cantonese movie we'd never heard of.  In the U.S., this thing would doubtless be covered in jalapenos and ghost chile sauce, to invoke real sorrow, but fortunately we were half a world away.  Full of greasy street food, we went to sleep on beds much softer then we've been used to in Taiwan, which are amazingly still softer than those in Korea.

The next morning, after again tanking up at the hotel buffet, we took the metro north and east to the outskirts of Kowloon, to see the Nan Lian Zen gardens, adjoining the Chi Lin convent.  It is a fairly large walled park in the middle of urban sprawl, and fairly well insulated against noise by the wall.  It's hard to describe the gardens, except that each turn of the winding paths present a new vision of the Buddhist Pure Land.  There are water features, fuzzy pines, and great "virtuous" stones transplanted from who knows where.  Gardeners silently trim the grass with hand shears.  The whole place was replete with excellent spots for a nap, were there no security guards roaming the place.  There was a golden pagoda in the middle of the lake, along with koi fish.  They were not particularly interested in people, as feeding them is forbidden and they can tell a stranger from whoever's job it is to feed them.  Koi are very smart.

We popped our heads into a pavilion where they were displaying works by students at a pottery school the nuns had sponsored to be run by a famous master potter.  Indeed, the gardens themselves were a partnership between the nuns and the city.  For being aloof from the world, these venerable ladies can cut a deal.  Having circled at least the larger part of the gardens, we headed across the road to the convent (or "nunnery" as the signs had it) to see these wizened lady-monks for ourselves.

Alas, they were nowhere to be seen.  The place is lavishly constructed on the usual Chinese model of outer, middle, and inner hall, with two courtyards.  Behind the third hall there are dormitories, which is where we suspect the nuns were cloistered during the day.  The first courtyard featured lotus ponds, but beyond the threshold to the middle hall, no photography was allowed.  All around the second courtyard were shrines with giant gold Buddhas.  Incense wafted from every direction, and a PA system droned "Amitofo," the Chinese name for the Amida Buddha, being chanted over and over.  When we'd absorbed enough sanctity, we exited through the gift shop, where Laura found a nice purse possibly made by the nuns.  I doubt we'll ever know for sure.

We made our way back to the metro and took it all the way to HK Island and the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.  If there's anything I like, it's old nautical shit.  We first had lunch on the top floor in a bistro usefully and charmingly staffed by adults with developmental disabilities.  We then paid our way into the exhibits enjoyed  all sort of models, replicas, dioramas, and artifacts.  Laura was very pleased to find a giant lighthouse lens (glass, of course), and I stepped into a bridge simulator run by merchant navy cadets.  Now, granted, my competition were children who enjoyed smashing the simulated passenger ferry into things, but my piloting impressed the cadets, I could tell.  I sailed the length of a simulated Victoria Bay with nary a near-miss.  I believe I stepped out of that museum a couple inches taller.

We took a real ferry back to Kowloon to rest up before dinner.  We came back to signs telling us the hotel would be observing Earth Hour and dimming the lights.  This might have proved interesting, as we decided to dine in the traditional Cantonese restaurant located in the hotel.  Laura got the tofu (usually a safe bet), but I figured if I was in a foreign land, and the company is paying for it (after all, these are the people that make me live in Nowhere, NY), I was going for the whole hog, by which I mean fried squab and a chicken and frog legs stew.  Laura wasn't thrilled with her dinner, alas, but I rather enjoyed pigeon, and the frog legs were the best I've ever had, scarcely distinguishable from the chicken apart from being bone-in.  Laura had a light, floral tea, and I went for the pu-erh, a completely fermented tea I'd come to enjoy in Hong Kong.

The promised dimming of the lights had not happened, and the only candles were the tea lights under our respective teapots.  We decided to take dessert in the rooftop lounge to see how Earth Hour had changed the skyline.  It was definitely subdued compared to usual, but it was still light enough to read by.  Surely HK has a record somewhere for light pollution.  Without blackout curtains, I'm not sure I would have slept the weekend at all.

Having gone to bed and rising again to enjoy our last lavish hotel breakfast, we climbed into a cab and headed back to the airport.  Apart from the trials and vagaries of air travel, not much remains to be said.  Taiwan immigration hardly looked at my passport before stamping it with another 90 day visa.  Not to be preachy, but it's amazing how disinterested immigration officials can be when their country isn't hated by half the world.  Such comparisons--which country does what differently and possibly better--are one of the intellectual joys of international travel.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Long weekend in Hong Kong, part I

A few weeks ago, we went to Hong Kong for a long weekend.  Laura's experiment was running long, and in order to extend our visas, we had to leave Taiwan and come back.  Since it's less than a two-hour flight west, Hong Kong suited our purposes nicely.

Hong Kong is a collection of islands and a peninsula on the coast of mainland China.  From 1842 to 1997, it was a British colony.  (Fair warning, I'm about to launch into a history lesson.)  In the early 19th century, the British wanted Chinese porcelain and tea.  The problem was, the British didn't have anything the Chinese wanted in trade.  The imperial government insisted on cold hard cash, in the form of silver.  The British didn't want to part with their silver, so they managed to smuggle live tea plants out of China and start tea plantations in British-held India.  But unlike tea, porcelain doesn't grow on trees.

The British finally found something the Chinese would accept in trade: opium, made from vast poppy plantations in India.  The stuff is seriously addicting, and was wreaking havoc on the Chinese middle bureaucratic class particularly.  The Emperor in Beijing told the British to stop, the British said "Make us," and the two sides went to war.  The Chinese, being militarily backwards, lost, and gave the British Hong Kong Island in 1842.

A second war resulted in the British getting the Kowloon peninsula in 1860.  In 1897, the British leased additional land (the "New Territories") north of Kowloon for 100 years.  Fast forward a century, the lease on the New Territories was running out.  And though the British held Hong Kong Island and Kowloon in perpetuity, they doubted they could hold it against the Red Chinese.  Further, they wanted some of that sweet, sweet Mainland trade (cheap plastic shit!), and Hong Kong was a sticking point.  So in 1997, they lowered the Union Jack and handed the colony over to the People's Republic of China.

With Hongkongers (the preferred demonym; I kept calling them Hongkongolese or Hongkongolians, though, of course, not to their faces), the handover has not been popular.  While under the "one country, two systems" rule, HK has been allowed a degree of self-rule, self-policing, separate trade policies and its own border controls, HKers perceive greater encroachment by authorities in Beijing, including efforts to supplant Cantonese culture and language with Mandarin.  Futher, they've seen their economy's growth rate slow to a crawl since 1997.  Unscientific polls conducted by local newspapers suggest a majority of HKers would return to British rule if they could.

The flight, on Hong Kong Airlines, was fairly pleasant.  The seats are more comfortable, slightly roomier, and they fed us, even on a short flight.  It puts the lie to American carriers' claims that they have to squeeze us the way they do (figuratively and literally) to remain competitive.  Still, flying is flying, so when you factor in getting to the airport, getting through the airport, takeoff, flying and landing, going through immigration and customs, and finally getting to our hotel in Kowloon, Laura was perkier but I was bushed.  So we managed to take a stroll around a very long block and get dinner at the first thing that appealed, a British pub-themed restaurant with somewhat indifferent fare.  But we were fed and ready for bed.

Early the next morning (after a sumptuous hotel breakfast) we checked out a park we'd seen the night before, which has an old masonry observation tower that offers views of the Bay.  We wandered to another park closer to the water, dedicated to Bruce Lee and Hong Kong cinema, including handprints of many famous stars.  We then found a 7-Eleven (they are almost as ubiquitous there as they are in Taiwan) and bought metro passes.  Descending to the subway, we found the sort of clean, efficient mass transit system we see everywhere in the world (except for the U.S.), and took the train under Victoria Bay to Hong Kong Island.  It became noticeably cooler and breezier as we zipped along under the ocean.  Emerging from underground, we could see immediately that HK Island was much hillier than Kowloon, with most walkways on a grade.  

A few, miscellaneous observations about Hong Kong.  It is similar in many ways to Taichung or even Seoul, with a lot of modern buildings, including some very tall skyscrapers.  These tend to sit close to the shoreline where the land is most flat.  There are also a lot of signs of former colonial rule: Victorian buildings, English signage, statues of British monarchs and colonists, driving on the left, and British-accented English is spoken about half the populace--though mostly as a second language and not without traces of a Chinese accent, too.  It's very pleasant to hear.  Police are dressed much as you'd see in Britain.  Taxis are all red, and share the same body type regardless of manufacturer.  These are not quite as comfortable as the ones we've been enjoying in Taiwan, but most of the cabbies speak enough English not to have to write directions in Chinese, as we do here.  Hong Kong is also a lot more diverse than Taiwan.  Here you can go a day without seeing another foreigner, but the streets and subways of HK are thronged with people from all over the world, particularly the West and the Indian subcontinent.  The latter of these seem very heavily involved in the suitmaking business there, and everywhere near our hotel there were men outside tailor shops, trying to entice people to come in for a fitting.  As I aspire to only wear Hawaiian shirts, I declined every time.

Now on HK Island, we wended our way up a hill to the botanical gardens.  I am a hillwalker with sturdy calves, but the severe grade winded even me.  The gardens were very nice, with a large fountain and a sweeping view of skyscrapers up and down the hill.  We found a statue of King George VI, and, pious Anglican that I am, I knelt for a short prayer for the repose of his soul.  The gardens are also home to various bird enclosures, including some very pink flamingoes.  In the wild, the flamingo is pink from the tiny shrimps it eats.  Here in their enclosure, however, their water was dyed red!

We next set off to take a tram up the tallest mountain on HK Island, Victoria Peak.  When we arrived at the terminal, the line snaked on forever.  There was a short line, however: all you had to do was buy a ticket to Madame Toussaud's as well, which is located atop the Peak.  I've always wanted to see a Madame Toussaud's, so we did just that.  A short while later, we were in the tram, going up an impossibly steep incline, averaging 30 degrees.  The car looks rather antique, heightening the sense of excitement, and is pulled along the bottom by two braided cables as thick as your wrist.  A soothing ratching sound was heard as backstops popped up behind us to arrest any sudden backward motion.  The foliage obscured the view much of the way up, but at the top we were treated to breathtaking views of the city and Victoria Bay below.

Madame Toussaud's is fun.  The wax statues are incredibly lifelike, they're not roped off and you're perfectly able to put your arm around Nicole Kidman, or (as I did) sneak a cheek-kiss from Audrey Hepburn.  The absolutely best part was Queen Elizabeth's statue, as it is the closest I am every going to get to my famous distant cousin.  There were figures of Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, Chou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping.  Sadly, nowhere to be seen was my friend, Chiang Kai-shek.  There was also a statue of Barack Obama in an Oval Office mockup.  They were charging to take pictures with 44, but the likeness wasn't entirely convincing and he hadn't gone gray yet, so we skipped.  There was a lovely section of Hong Kong cinema stars, including Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, and Michelle Yeoh.  And the tour finished with rock-'n'-rollers, from Elvis, the Beatles, and Freddie Mercury, to today's stars Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.  Taylor Swift is uncomfortably tall, but Lady Gaga is more our sizes.

Having seen a bunch of people we'll never see in real life, we went back outside to take in the sweeping views and walk along the mountainside a bit.  We then returned to the tram and went back down the hill.  Unsurprisingly, the seats still faced the mountain, as the 30 percent grade meant that facing the other direction, you'd never keep your seat.  The descent was faster, but not in an uncontrolled way, and very soon we were back on the streets to roam Hong Kong once more.

Almost by providence, one of the first things we stumbled across was the Anglican cathedral, St. John the Evangelist.  It is a somewhat vernacular Gothic church, with nothing to make it particularly stand out, apart from the side chapel, from the vault of which hung old tattered flags, a faded Royal Navy ensign and a blue colonial flag.  Along the walls were memorials to the local regiment, the merchant navy, and one Royal Navy ship in particular.  A book nearby listed all the former memorials the Japanese occupiers had removed and melted down in World War II.  The cathedral also had a bookstore, and I thought this was opportune for scaring up some postcards.  A sign said there was a clergy discount, so I meekly showed the clerk my business card.  Oh, she said, the clergy are on a retreat today but are coming back for vespers, you should wait for them in the church to have a chat!  I thanked her and made like I was going to do just that, but we quickly escaped down the hill.  I was in no mood to explain to yet another Episcopalian clergyperson, or gaggle of clergy, my bogus priesthood.

In search of a metro station, we ambled down closer to the waterfront, and crossed under the HSBC building.  HSBC, if you didn't know, is the Hong Kong-Shanghai Banking Corporation.  Out front were the bronze lions that grace all the HSBC-issued HK banknotes, with which Laura posed for a picture (other tourists were seen to do the same).  In the courtyard was a statute of a longtime governor of the bank in the 19th century, a bronze frock-coated baronet.  Nearby was what looked like a courthouse, built of stone in the reign of Edward VII, with the royal arms displayed in the pediment.  Really, HK is a British town, and the sight of the Communist Chinese flag fluttering anyway is somewhat jarring.

Descending back underground, we returned to Kowloon so we could rest before dinner.  We decided upon a place near the hotel we'd seen the night before, which specialized in Beijing and Szechuan cuisine.  The gimmick of the place were large mythloric masks hanging from the ceiling.  We had various dumplings and spring rolls, and then something advertised to us as "crispy beef."  It was crispy all right, but also candied.  I couldn't tell by the waitress' expression whether she was annoyed or bemused that we hadn't eaten it.  We then took a stroll along water by the glow of countless skyscrapers, in the same HK cinema-themed park we started the day out at.  Then it was back to the hotel to sleep the sleep of the dead, and recharge for tomorrow's adventures.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Chiang-ing of the Guard in Taipei

On Sunday we went to Taipei to see the Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen Memorial Halls, by cab to the high-speed rail station, and then again from the Taipei Main Station to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

In Chinese culture (and I've seen it in Korea, too), important people have memorial halls built in order to preserve their memory.  It's where their name is displayed in exquisite calligraphy and where their portrait is hung or a statue is placed.  These memorial halls seem to be more significant to the memory of the celebrated person than their actual graves, even.

Sun Yat-sen was a leader (and quickly the leader) of the early Chinese revolutionary period, starting on January 1st, 1912 when the last Qing Emperor was deposed.  Before he died of cancer in 1925, he founded the Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang or KMT--authentically pronounced Gwoh-min-dahng) and set the stage for his protege Chiang Kai-shek to make the "Northern Expedition" to bring the warlords into line with the new Republic.  Sun Yat-sen is revered on both sides of the Taiwan Straits.

Despised on the other side of the Straits, however is Chiang Kai-shek.  A consequence of the Northern Expedition, he fought the Communist Party during the civil war period (1927-1937, 1946-1950) and the Japanese during World War II (1937-1945).  He eventually lost the mainland and retreated to Taiwan, which, with U.S. military help, he was able to hold.  For the next 25 years he held power in Taiwan as president of the Republic of China, and frustrated Chairman Mao and the People's Republic of China's desire to be recognized as the "real" China.  He was a U.S. ally in WWII and a signatory power at the founding of the United Nations.  The U.N. seat was only given to the PRC in 1971, and U.S. recognition was switched only in 1979.  And while the Red Guards were pulling a Taliban and smashing antiquities on the mainland, Chiang made fostering traditional Chinese culture and arts a state policy.

Nowadays, though, Chiang Kai-shek is not universally admired here in Taiwan, either.

When Taiwan was surrendered by the Japanese, the KMT behaved rather badly towards towards the local population (primarily Min-speaking people who migrated to Taiwan in the 300 years before the Japanese took Taiwan in 1895, and had never been under Republican Chinese rule), and when they revolted, the KMT brutally put down the revolt and established martial law that lasted (with the further excuse of hostilities with the Communist mainland) until 1988.  The island was flooded with more than a million Mandarin-speaking Chinese from the mainland who weren't interested in Taiwan's unique pluralistic history and culture so much being part of China and taking back the mainland.

So, in the post-martial law era, the KMT has lost the presidency twice to the opposition Democratic Progress Party (DPP), the first time 2000-08, and then again in 2016.  They represent the view that Chiang Kai-shek was a nasty brute and that Taiwan should be independent and part of neither Communist or Nationalist China.  In 2007 they proposed to de-consecrate the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and turn it into a museum for martial law brutality, as they see it.  But then the KMT was back in power, and they put the Kai-bosh on the plan (so many pun opportunities here, you can't possibly know).  Now that the DPP is in office, last month they reintroduced their plans for De-Chiang-ification.  So now was the time to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall while it was still the same.

Whew!  I'm sorry for all the history, but it's necessary to understand why we were visiting the place.  The Chiang Kai-shek (CKS for short) Memorial Hall was completed in 1981 and differs from most memorial halls in that it is more a pagoda shape than a rectangular building.  The first thing we went to see, since it was nearly the top of the hour, was the changing of the guard.

When you get to the top of several flights of steps, the Memorial Hall opens with an arch.  Inside, under a rotunda canopy of the KMT sun emblem, is a giant bronze statue of CKS, flanked by ROC flags, and calligraphy of his political principles carved on the walls.  In front is a large red carpet, and on two short platforms, two army guards in ceremonial uniform, with white gloves and webbing, chrome helmets and nickle-plated rifles with bayonets attached.  At the top of the hour, two relief guards with rifles led by an NCO with a pistol, enter from a side vestibule and slowly march to the center of the carpet.  The guards on the platform descend and there's quite a bit of smart drilling, which includes a fair amount of saluting, brandishing bayonets, and twirling rifles.  And despite all the "crash and stamp" of boots and rifles, almost all of it is done wordlessly.  It was all quite impressive and is worth a view on YouTube, if you can find a video of it.

Once we'd seen that, we descended downstairs to see the museum in the undercroft.  There you can see CKS' writings, calligraphy, uniforms, flags, medals (he was probably only second to Marshal Tito in foreign orders and awards), sedan chairs, Cadillacs, and a full replica of his office, complete with a wax likeness of the Generalissimo himself.

After this, we had a bite and hopped in a cab for the Sun Yat-sen (SYS) Memorial Hall.  This was built in 1966 in a more traditional shape, but still has some mid-century modern elements to it.  For those of us of a certain age, it's homey in its datedness.  Had the red carpets been replaced with orange shag, I would have been completely at home.  Here there's a bronze statue of SYS even bigger than CKS's, surrounded by flags and a mezzanine with bronze bas-relief plaques depicting SYS's career.  We again saw the changing of the guard ceremony, and with a few alterations for the differences in architecture, it was essentially the same as the one at the CKS Memorial Hall.

Sun Yat-sen's personal legacy is much safer than CKS's, and throngs of people relax and play in the square in front of the Memorial Hall and adjacent gardens.  Being revered in mainland China as well, there are quite a few mainlanders in attendance.  It's hard to put a finger on exactly how, but mainlanders dress a little differently than the Taiwanese, in a sort of plainer, slightly dated way.  They are also, compared to the polite and quiet Taiwanese, loud and pushy.  We had a look at a gallery with colorized photos from SYS's life and career, and I had elderly Chinese practically pushing me to get a closer look, yammering away at a half-shout the entire time.  I was starting to see the DPP's point on reunification.

Admittedly we didn't explore the entire building, but there didn't seem to be quite the same museum setup as at the CKS Memorial Hall, with very few artifacts on display.  But there was a delightful retrospective exhibit of the mainland-born Taiwanese ink painter Luo Feng (b. 1937, presumably still alive and well).  She works in a style that bridges classical ink painting with more modern forms, sometimes painting more her mood or an impression than an actual representation of a real landscape.  She works equally well in the classical mode, and one painting that absolutely knocked my Gudetama socks off was a traditional ink painting of Yosemite.  I don't know if I can lay hold of a print, but I seriously want one.

And with all that accomplished, we returned to the train station by cab, took the train back to Taichung, and then another cab home.  The transit system here is widespread and very easy to navigate, but can tire you out, too.  Our little jaunt north involved five taxis and two one-hour train rides, and we were flat-out bushed.

Post-script: Laura and I have debated whether it's worth the extra $10 to upgrade from standard high-speed rail tickets to business class, so we rode up to Taipei in standard class.  Laura may still feel differently, but I was definitely confirmed in my preference for business class.  The seats are wider and softer, the floor is carpeted, there are foot rests, no middle seats, and they bring you a drink and snack, and even a newspaper if you want.  We had bought two very tasty boxed lunches at the Taipei station for an insanely cheap $3 each, making the trip homeward very sumptuous, satisfying, and peaceful.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Birthday cakes in Taiwan--Rachel's post

I was excited to visit Laura and Ian in Taiwan. I’ve only been outside of the country once before, and this was my first official passport stamp (because Australia uses e-visas).

The flight out was actually pretty enjoyable. If you’re ever on a long-haul flight in economy class, I highly recommend having having planned ahead and selected a special meal when you booked your ticket. Everyone with a special meal gets served first and if you select the vegetarian option, at least on United, it’s curry for dinner, curry in a pita for a midnight snack, followed up by a nice hot breakfast curry. It’s hard to make curry unappetizing. 

As Laura had promised, once the plane landed I made it through security, customs, and the baggage claim without any local language skills. Ian had graciously traveled to meet me at the airport, so he handled getting us onto the right bus and train. By the time we got back to Laura and Ian’s place, the travel time amounted to 20 hours from my door to theirs. 

(Fun comparison: Walking would have taken approximately 78 days, non-stop, assuming you can walk on water)

We did so much during the visit (Jade market! Fine arts! Animatronic dinosaurs in the museum! Arcade games! Night markets! Fruit tea!), but my favorite thing was just being able to spend that chunk of time with Laura and Ian. 

Here are a few stories from the trip.

The Cat Café or The importance of a convincing smile

Laura has developed a special way of compensating for not knowing the local language. Whenever someone starts speaking to her, and she can neither understand nor reply in a way that they might understand, she smiles, says “It’s OK! It’s OK!” and agrees to whatever it is they’re saying/offering/asking. She is very convincing. And it works! They give her whatever the default thing is, or guess at what she wanted and give her that. Most of the time that’s what she wanted, or at least not far off. 

On the first full day I was in Taiwan, Laura had to work, so Ian and I decided to visit the cat café near the apartment. We were greeted by a smiling waitress who was wearing a cat ears headband. Sadly, I’d left my cat ears at home, so I couldn’t match her. 

She showed us downstairs to a room with one very nonplussed scotch fold cat and handed us the menus. There are two main things that make the cat café a cat café: First, there are cats. Secondly, the establishment serves lattes with foam sculpted into the shape of cats. You can order lattes with one, two, or three cats.

We tried to order cat lattes, but there was a problem…which we couldn’t quite grasp. The waitress explained the situation, and we tried to explain back, but since we were each using different languages, it didn’t work. After a few repetitions, creative pointing and hand signals, we got the idea that the latte foam artist wasn’t at work yet. The waitress was offering to bring us one latte now, and cat lattes in a couple of hours. We decided we’d be fine with just the normal lattes. 

It was time to try out Laura’s technique.

“It’s…OK. It’s OK?” I said

She looked at me skeptically.

“Its…OK?” I tried again. 

No dice. 

(I later asked Laura why the magic phrase had failed me, and she told me that clearly I didn’t believe in it hard enough. You have to be obviously and unreservedly enthusiastic about accepting the unknown offer, and I was not.)

Ian pulled out his phone and typed “We are okay with the plain lattes” into Google Translate and showed the waitress the translated text. She burst out laughing, pointed at the word that “plain” had been translated into, and giggled again. We tried reverse translating the Chinese back into English, but we got the word “plain” again. I really want to know what that word was translated into. I suspect it amounted to something like “We approve of the ugly lattes.”

At any rate, the waitress called someone on the phone to translate for us, and we were eventually able to order and drink our ugly lattes while the cats hid from us, like cats do. After that experience, I tried to sincerely mean it when I said “it’s OK,” but I just don’t have the knack. 

The Food: Tea houses and less successful dining experiences 

Udon noodles are always delicious, but they are even more delicious in Taiwan. 

My favorite meal from this trip was probably the vegetarian udon noodles and mango coconut milk bubble tea at the Chun Shui Tang teahouse. The Chun Shui Tang teahouse is one of two tea house (franchises?) that claim to have invented and/or popularized bubble tea, and whether they’re responsible for the creation of the drink or not, they make delicious bubble tea. We went back there a second time, and I ordered exactly the same meal. 

Laura and Ian also took me to the Wu Wei Tsao Tang teahouse. It’s a beautiful wooden structure, with tea rooms arranged around a pond that is full of gigantic koi fish. As they've surely explained here before, the tea cups in Taiwan are tiny little glasses, and you brew and drink many, many more rounds of tea than I could handle. We actually felt the need to tuck the bag of leftover unbrewed tea into my bag so it looked like we’d drunk more than we had.

We had two entertainingly uncomfortable restaurant experiences:

One night we decided to stay close to the apartment for dinner, since it was pouring outside. So we made our way to the nearby vegetarian restaurant, Veggie Wonderland. Turns out, it’s an Italian restaurant! (We should have run at that point, but we did not.)

The food wasn’t that bad, but it was weird. Imagine a vegetable lasagna, but instead of spinach and tomatoes, the vegetables in the lasagna are cabbage, bok choy, and green onions. That’s pretty much what I got. It didn’t taste too bad, but we did put the leftovers in the bin earmarked for hog food, near the dumpster outside of the apartment.

The second less-than-successful experience we had was our time at the hotpot restaurant in the mall. 
I’d been to a hot pot restaurant once before, years ago. It’s only slightly more complicated than fondu. There’s a burner in front of you, and you get a pot of broth or water. You order things to cook in the water (meats, vegetables, noodles, etc) and they bring you those items. Often, they’ll provide recommended cooking times for the raw food.

During my time in Taichung, we mostly went to restaurants that had English translations on their menus. Unfortunately, not every restaurant that has an English-friendly menu is English-speaking friendly. We had some difficulty figuring out how to order. Even though it looked like you could simply order pre-defined packages (sets) of food, there were actually some options that you needed to choose between. Much pointing and confident “it’s OK!” saw us through.

Laura and I both ordered the vegetarian hot pot option. I was surprised by the size of the enormous bowl of cabbage, tofu, mushrooms and unidentified mock meats that the waitress brought us. Was some of it intended to transform the water into more flavorful broth? Were we supposed to casually eat half a head of cabbage as part of the meal? We tried sneaking peeks at other diners to see what they cooked, but we didn’t get a lot of clues. (Meanwhile, Ian is merrily and easily cooking and enjoying his various delicately sliced meats.)  

Eventually we cooked and ate enough to consider dinner completed.  

The search for cake

For the last couple of years, Laura has visited California for our birthday. This year, I was returning the favor. But whether you’re on the West Coast or in the Far East, a birthday’s not a birthday without cake. You’re more likely to find steamed buns and bright fluffy white milk bread than a chocolate cake in Taiwan. So Laura and I went on a quest to find all the types of cakes we could. 

We found:

Lemon cakes—Sponge cake with crisp lemon frosting. I loved it.

Pineapple cake—Traditional Taiwanese cake. It’s almost like a shortbread biscuit with a slice of dried pineapple tucked within.

Green tea cake—Laura had this on her ice cream from Miyahara Ophthalmology Department (a very fancy ice cream shop, despite the name). Meh.

Cheesecake—This was the fluffiest cheesecake I’ve ever had. Very nice!

Some fruits I would not recommend

Cherimoya—A cherimoya looks like an armadillo would if an armadillo was a fruit. It has a kind of scaly green exterior. The skin is poisonous, and the seeds (which are spaced throughout the flesh) are also poisonous. But if you persevere and avoid the skin and seeds, you can eat the firm, damp white flesh. It takes a little like a cross between coconut and feet.

Eggfruit—The eggfruit, or canistel, is cheerful yellow fruit and is shaped somewhat like a mango. The fruit gets its name from the texture of the flesh, which has the mouthfeel of an overcooked hard boiled egg. The flavor is...unremarkable. 

Fruits you should try 

Starfruit—The starfruit in Taiwan was as big and juicy as those Mike and I had while on our honeymoon in Hawaii. You can even just eat it like an apple, if you don't feel like cutting it into pretty star-shaped slices.

Purple Dragonfruit—This looks just like a normal dragonfruit from the outside, but cutting it reveals an exiting deep fuchsia flesh. Sure, it tastes pretty much like normal dragonfruit, but the color! So bright! This fruit is also useful if you need to stain clothing, furniture, countertops, or cutting boards.

Note: Eating this fruit produces the same after-effects as beets. 

Something else you should try 

Visiting Laura and Ian when they travel! This was such a fun and fascinating place to spend time together, and they're excellent hosts.


(Editor's note: Rachel makes an excellent guest too, and we enjoyed having her.  She was also a great sport for agreeing to author this guest post—Thanks, Rachel!)

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Journey to Sanyi--Laura's post

I asked a work colleague, who has spent a lot of time traveling in Taiwan, for suggestions of things to do, and one of the items he mentioned was a visit to Sanyi.  Sanyi is a village about 30 minutes to the north of Taichung that's famous for their wood carving.  There's a wood carving museum there, along with lots of shops.

I've occasionally dabbled in wood carving.  What that really means is that I've got a few books and supplies, I've dreamed of owning a lathe if I ever had a garage to put it in (imagining the pens and chair legs I could make), and one time I carved a (still not finished, but functional) captured ball in a cage.  So when I heard about Sanyi, it went on the list.

While having dumplings with my colleague and her family the other night, her husband mentioned that he had started planning a trip to Sanyi.  I excitedly exclaimed that I wanted to come too, and he graciously agreed to move the trip to the weekend so that we could all go.

I wanted to try out the local train system, so we ended up with the plan to take the train to Sanyi, and then consider our option to take a train or a cab back to Taichung at the end of the day.  On Saturday morning, we met up to grab a quick cab to the train station.

The closest train station to us in Taichung is Taichung Station, about 3km away from the apartment.  There's apparently an old Taichung Station and a new Taichung station, and initially Ian and I were a bit confused because we couldn't find anywhere selling tickets after the cab driver dropped us off.  But after a quick back and forth with a clerk, I learned that we were in the old station, which you have to walk through to get to the new station, where you can actually do train-station-like activities.  We wound our way through some halls and stairways to arrive at the new station and picked up our tickets (250, or US$8 for all five travelers).

Without specifying anything other than "Sanyi" to the ticket clerk, we ended up on a local train, which was pretty much like riding the subway.  There were some seats available, but mostly it was standing room with handles to grip to keep balanced.  The train was busy, but only as packed as I've experienced in Boston, and not the crazy mass of people we dealt with in the subways of Seoul.  Mountains and fields whizzed by, and eventually we disembarked at Sanyi station.

Sanyi station was small, and we found ourselves standing outside on the steps near several taxi cabs, trying to decide how we could get lunch.  I pulled out my guidebook because I remembered it had said something about where the center of town was, and a local woman came over and asked if she could help.  (They do brand themselves "The tourist-friendly town"--Ed.)  I told her that we knew we had to take a taxi to the museum, but we didn't know if we should have lunch in town or eat at shops near the museum.  She didn't seem to think much of our plans, and seemed concerned that we wouldn't find food at either place.  So, I asked if she could recommend something.  After confirming that Hakka food was OK (stuff with noodles, she said) she decided we should go a few miles, eat at a restaurant, and then go the rest of the way to the museum on foot.  She spoke with the cab drivers for us, explained the plan and arranged for one of them to take us to a restaurant  There was a lot of back and forth (maybe they were deciding where to take us?), and then we were off!

The cab driver took us a few kilometers into town and then stopped and let us know through gestures that we could eat at the place across the street, and then we would have to walk up a road to the right to get to the museum.  We got out of the cab and one of our friends wanted to get a few pictures of interesting signage before we moved on.  The cabbie, having originally started down the road, stopped and got out of his cab to tell us again to go across the street to get lunch.  He also yelled something in Chinese to the shop, which was half in the open air.  I can only assume it was something like "Hey! These people want to eat food, they don't speak any Chinese. Help them!"  People are so friendly here!

At the restaurant, they gave us a plastic laminated menu and grease pencil to indicate our choices (a very common ordering technique here), and I had just whipped out my Google Translate app to help make decisions when a middle-aged local woman came forward and asked in English if she could help.  We said sure, agreed that noodles sounded fine, and went to sit down at a table.  I think we got the shop specialty.  We each got a bowl that we discovered contained thick, chewy noodles in a chicken broth, with green onions, mung bean sprouts, slices of pork, triangles of beef liver, a tea egg, and something pink, crispy and well seasoned sprinkled on top.  I admit that I mostly stuck to my noodles, green onions, sprouts, egg and broth, (sinking less desirable food items in the remaining broth before pushing the bowl away as done) but Ian and our friends all gamely finished off their bowls, upholding the honor of all Americans abroad.  Fed and paid up (150 or US$5 for four full meals), we hit the road.

My maps app said we were only a half-mile away from the museum.  We walked up the main road a bit, observing a rusted three-wheeled vehicle as large as a truck and some interesting signs, before turning off onto a side road, and starting up an incline.  We passed a resort that appeared to be somewhat abandoned.  There were large rocks (maybe 10-15 feet tall?) carved in traditional Chinese cloud motifs, and a wooden amphitheater. The sign at the main building called it Sanyi Sakura Resort, but there was no activity and little evidence of upkeep.  To our left, a walkway opened up with some storefronts and what looked like nice motel rooms, so we decided to see what was there.

There did appear to be shops, but a vast majority of them were closed, despite it being just after noon on a Saturday.  As best we could figure, this used to be a resort that had now turned into primarily residential housing with a few shops.  Bronze statues graced every corner, and the pillars between garages were printed with helpful sayings for a better life. "Don't worry about everything. Be firm and resolute."  "Nothing for nothing, and very little for half a penny." "Give compassion a form with concrete actions." "Love your competition." The walkway stones were heavily flecked with mica and sparkled in the mid-day sun.  At this point, we were high up enough in the mountain to see other mountains in the distance.  The mist partially obscured mountains further away, so that we saw vague impressions of dark hills behind dark hills, fading to white in the haze of the day. The depictions of layered, fading mountains in the distance common in Chinese calligraphy scrolls finally made sense as not impressionism, but truly representational.

After exploring the area for a little bit, I pulled up my maps again and my colleague and I started to figure out the directions we needed to walk in.  Then, from around the corner, her husband called out that he was just going to head into the air conditioned art gallery he found.  There was a small gallery featuring some nice modern art--primarily large paintings and some ceramic and jade works.  One unusual feature of the gallery is that the seating in the individual rooms was more than perfunctory.  There was a nicely carved wooden bench in one room, in another there were thick leather couches and chairs, and in another, a dining room table.  In a different gallery I would have expected the furniture to be part of the exhibit, and not for sitting on, but the attendants here didn't seem to mind. I guess they were really encouraging visitors to use the space to consider the works in comfort.  We got directions to get to the main street to the museum, which was only a few blocks away and once again set out.

Shops containing wood sculptures, large and small, trinkets, baubles, and clothing lined the road to the museum, but our friend at the train station was right, there was very little in the way of restaurants visible.  A handful of Asian tourists milled about on the street, and on the steps to the museum, a group of several dozen people who looked like they were students on a class trip took a photo holding a banner.  As our friends dealt with an interruption to some of their utility services back at their house in the states, I had a chance to check out the scenery.  Behind the museum was a Chinese gate opening to a somewhat damaged walkway into the forest that quickly turned up the hill and out of sight.  Perhaps it's a path for another time.  The parking lot looked out on more misty mountains.  Right across from the museum, they were filming a cooking show, which the sign declared was part of "iWalker Moving Kitchen".  They were putting a breaded fish into a smoker while I watched.

The museum didn't allow photography.  There was a clearly defined "visitor path" that wound us up and down five floors filled with a little historic art and furniture, and much modern art, both in traditional and non-traditional Chinese/Taiwanese styles.  I was most impressed by the carvings of leaves and bugs that were delicate and translucent.  I also liked the use of roughened wood grains to produce lifelike fur on apes and pigs.  Lots of figures were carved from wood, and I recognized some mythical characters from a television show I had seen.  We saw lots of pigs with ingots for prosperity, temple dogs, bixie, mythical characters, Buddhas, cabbages, orchids, toads, fishes, and figural art.

After the museum, we wandered through the shops.  At one shop, Ian was standing around, and suddenly ones of the shop ladies started massaging him with a wooden massager.  We decided to move on quickly after that.  Eventually, Ian and I picked up a few wooden trinkets (a small ruyi scepter, tea tongs, scoop and stirring pick), and four-inch geode with stand.  The geode had been cut open and polished, and was displayed with the top piece held vertical, like a box with a lid.  Our friends were also successful in purchasing some goods from the various shops, and we shifted focus to try to find some dinner.

(It should be mentioned that the wood carvings are made from aromatic woods, making browsing the shops a very pleasant olfactory event.--Ed.)

The one restaurant we could find wasn't open, and as best we could tell, they said we were supposed to come back in a half hour.  We went back to a coffee counter that we passed on the way to the museum to caffinate and wait our time. The lady running the coffee counter saw me hesitate at choosing an espresso drink, and said, "No, you drink my latte, it's the best."  So I did.  I can say with confidence it's the best latte I've had in Taiwan (though, having stuck to tea primarily).  The coffee lady was a little bit crazy, from insisting that I come over to smell the latte before she poured the milk ("It's good, otherwise what's the point?") to making me keep the spoon in all the cups instead of returning them to her ("No, it's got milk, you can stir it as you drink"), to making recommendations about where to eat ("I'm kind of the boss here, you tell them coffee boss sent you and it will be OK!").  Ian suggests that perhaps she had a bit too much coffee herself, but who could blame her?

When Ian was walking around investigating a bamboo grove, he peeked in some windows to see what looked like a lovely dining room, set with candlelit tables and wine glasses. So we thought we'd try our luck to get dinner there.  After much walking trying to find our way in, we finally found what looked like a reception area.  When we walked in, my friend asked if this was a restaurant  They smiled, and seemed to confirm, but then told us we needed reservations.  Also, we could not make reservations now, because they would need time to make the food.  I'm still not sure what was going on, because they were fully staffed up, apparently open, but didn't want customers.  Anyway, it was 4:30, so we went back to the first restaurant

We were welcomed in to a table.  The woman who let us in told us she would give us a set menu and we said OK.  This was clearly a family-style place, and a glass lazy susan took up a vast majority of the table space.  Within a few minutes, they started bringing out dishes.  We had a large bowl of rice, most of a chicken, deboned and sliced, something like bok choi, various marinated meat slices (pork, beef, tentacles with suckers, tentacles without suckers) and green onions, a glass dish of somethings that were white and cup shaped (tripe?), a pile of tiny head-on whole fried shrimps on green onions, and a large cauldron of broth with different larger white cup shaped things. I stuck to the bok choi, chicken, rice, and broth.  Ian worked on most of the non-tentacled marinated meat, with a few shrimps, and our friends had a lion's share of the tentacles, white cup shaped things and whole shrimp in addition to other food.  We all ate our fill and still couldn't finish off the food. We paid for our meal and the clerk called us a taxi.  Gratefully, the cab driver didn't blink twice when Ian handed him the card to take us back to Taichung, and about 25 minutes later, we were back home, safe and sound.

Taipei and the National Palace Museum

A few weeks ago we headed north to Taipei to see the National Palace Museum.  It was also an occasion to try out the high-speed rail system, since I would have to use it to fetch Laura's sister Rachel from the airport a few days later.  We traveled the other American family from Corning, who were going up to see the Taipei Zoo.

It's about 20 minutes (and US$15) by cab to the HSR station, which is distinct from the regular rail station.  It's very new and kinda resembles more an airport than a rail station.  For 800元 and change you can ride in the business-class car, which is pretty nice.  There are only two seats per side of the aisle, so no chance of getting stuck in a middle seat.  The seats are spread out a bit more, and attendants bring you a baked good snack and beverage of choice.  They'll also collect your trash, and you can borrow one of a dozen newspapers, one or two in English.  The ride is very smooth and very swift (up to 300 km/h), and you can be from one end of the island to the other in a couple hours.

Once in Taipei (the architecturally famous Taipei Station), we parted ways with our friends and hopped in a cab.  I had a wad of cards I had written out with desired (as well as contingency) locations, and this works pretty well most of the time.  The museum is on the outskirts of the city in a park in a picturesque setting.  Despite being told Saturday was a good day to go to avoid tour groups, it was thickly peopled and there were any number of guided tours being loud and getting underfoot.

The original National Palace Museum was in the Forbidden City in Beijing, but during the Civil War and then World War II, the Nationalists (Kuomintang/Guomindang, or KMT) crated up the jewels of Chinese civilization and carted it around behind them as the fortunes of war moved the army lines back and forth.  In 1949, the Nationalists lost the mainland to Mao's Communists, and they evacuated (most) of the goods to Taiwan.  So this is the place to see Chinese antiquities.

Alas, the museum is not large enough to display all the collection, or even a large part of it.  Indeed, it doesn't have the density of items I'd have liked, and I suspect this is because of security.  You see, the collection is a bone of contention with the Red Chinese, who would like very much to have it back.  Not that they would steal.  But everything is behind glass and the glass cases take up a lot of real estate.  (It also left me wondering how awesome the inside of those cases must smell--like an antiques store x100.)

What we did see however was of very good quality.  There were neolithic objects, including tool blades made from jade, which tells you something about the durability of jade.  Then jade bi (pronounced "bee") discs from the Xia through Zhou dynasties, whose ritual uses we're still trying to enumerate.  Ritual bronze pots (called ding) and bells were all the rage in the Shang through Han dynasties.  A whole range of fine houseware ceramics from the Han through Qing dynasties.  There was, alas, but one three-color glazed Tang horse on display.  Representative items from 3,500 years of Chinese writing, from oracular script on slats to Qin writing reform, to rubbings of Han funeral inscriptions, and medieval through modern ink paintings.  Bronze mirrors throughout the ages.  And there was a collection of Qing furniture, which included a very impressive wooden folding screen with translucent jade panels inlaid.

The thing, though, that drew the biggest crowds was the Jade Cabbage.  Nobody in the West has every heard of this thing, but the Chinese are wild about it.  It was made in the late Qing dynasty in the 19th century, and it's a very delicate carving of a Chinese cabbage, the color of the stone changing from white at the bottom to emerald green at the top.  On the side is a whimsical grasshopper, pause for a bite.  It's nice, though why it's so iconic is a mystery to me.  I suspect it's a bit like the Mona Lisa: we're told to love it, so we do.  But I can think of better paintings, to my taste.  A companion of the Jade Cabbage is the Jade Meatwad (title mine).  It is a carving of a piece of fatty meat perched upon a pat of rice, and as with the cabbage, the color changes from white at the bottom, to pink and then red at the top.  This was more impressive, I thought, for it's verisimilitude.  It looked perfectly edible.

We rendezvous'd with our friends for dinner at the Taipei 101, a skyscraper that for a time in the Aughts was the tallest building in the world.  Due to the effect of foreshortening, it looks less impressive at the bottom than from miles away.  In all, it's 1,667 feet from steps to spire.  Attached is a luxury shopping mall, and we had come for a Michelin-starred dumpling restaurant.  Alas, we could not find it, and I felt mildly put out.  But we did finally settle on a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, which seemed to satisfy everyone (though Laura mostly stuck to tamago and inari).  As the sushi slowly wends past, you grab what you like, the price of which is indicated by color of plate.  At the end of the meal, the waiter counts your plates to calculate the bill.  Where we were seated we could also see the chefs at work, and our friends ordered several custom pieces, made to order.

Full up on rice and raw sea creatures, we decided to check out a jade market nearby.  (Because obviously we hadn't seen enough jade that day.)  In contrast the Taichung jade market, this was in what looked like a coverted parking garage, with wobbly tables and buzzing fluorescent lights.  And though a lot of vendors had packed up for the day, there were still deals to be had.  And we had several funny, friendly interactions with the shopkeepers.  Laura got herself a pair of earrings and a pendant, and our friends waddled out ladened with a veritable trove of treasures.

We caught a cab back to Taipei Station, then got back on the train.  I was happy for my tea and snack, and somewhere to rest my complaining back.  I was also now well-prepared to get to the airport to pick up Rachel two days later.  The story of her visit we'll let her tell in her own guest post.