Cats, Cabbages and Chiang Kai-Shek: Reflections on a week in Taipei, Taiwan

My affection for Taiwan developed slowly- and sadly, retrospectively- from the week we spent there last spring.

At the time, the city was a glitzy, modern, homogenous experience, and for the first few days we couldn’t find a place to sit down and have a beer after a day’s walking.

By looking through our photo gallery and recalling the long, languid days of wandering the streets and the underground train tunnels and discovering artistic little communities tucked behind the grand, wide boulevards, I have decided I enjoyed myself a lot more that I thought I did at the time.

The food choices were bewildering, and being Australian and therefore functionally monolingual, we could not understand what we were eating. This can be quite distressing given the gallery of butchered and neatly displayed animal parts lining the streets of traditional markets. Taipei is not the place for an animal lover, let alone for a vegetarian. This whole topic will be explained in a bit too much detail in another blog post.

Here is a ‘taste’ of what is to come. Our eating adventures in Taipei require a whole new blog post. It takes a lot to ‘stomach’ these photos- pun definitely intended.

A little background about Taiwan…

Shaped roughly like a leaf, Taiwan has more than 23 million people and is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Besides its modern cities, the island nation is also known for its natural beauty: mountains and lush forests, hot springs and lakes. Taiwan lies roughly 160 km off the coast of southeastern China. It is approximately 395 km long (north-south) and 145 km across at its widest point.

It’s like China but not; like Japan but not. It’s a quirky wonderland of people milling about in glitzy streetscapes and night markets which would scare a vegan to death, doing their own thing without paying much attention to a family of guileless Australians wandering around and wondering what we were supposed to be looking at.

We didn’t know why we were in Taipei- we had a week to go wherever we wanted, and Taiwan had a direct flight from Denpasar and a free 90 day visa on arrival- plus one of J’s Turkmenistani friends was living in Kaohsiung City, a day trip from Taipei on a very cool high speed train. Miss E has a love of cosplay, manga, vending machines and the general Harajuku vibe. J just wanted to go somewhere different. I wanted to take Eva air there- the Hello Kitty planes apparently even have Hello Kitty cutlery, but alas J vetoed that idea and we travelled on China Air. It was an excellent service and we had business class legroom in our economy seats so were rested and ready to explore by the time we go to Taipei mid-evening.

Our hotel was an utter disappointment- well located in Ximending but tiny and stuffy and expensive. It did have a cool toilet with controls and a heated seat. If we ever went to Taipei again we would fork out just that little bit extra for a luxury hotel. There aren’t many chain hotels there- so you are taking your chances on booking dot com. Our best night sleep and hospitality experience was at the Novotel hotel near the airport so we could catch an early flight home. J joked that if we came back we’d just stay there and commute into the city by train.

We were lucky to have serendipitously found ourselves in Ximending as there are a lot of military surplus stores, vending machine arcades, vendors of sugary snacks and cosplay stores all within a pedestrian zone. We were just above a foot massage parlour for our sore walking feet, too. I love the article of 25 cool things to do in Ximending of which we enjoyed a total of 8 with gusto; it’s a lovely article but beware of the avalanche of sponsorship ads whilst you do so.

Before we get to the meaning of the curious blog title, a quick history overview:

A short history of Taiwan

It’s a little bit Japanese and a little bit Chinese, with lots of ethic influences as well.

The history of Taiwan dates back tens of thousands of years to the earliest known evidence of human habitation on the island.

The sudden appearance of a culture based on agriculture around 3000 BC is believed to reflect the arrival of the ancestors of today’s Taiwanese aborigines.

The island was colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century, followed by an influx of Han Chinese including Hakka immigrants from the Fujian and Guangdong areas of China, across the Taiwan Strait. The Spanish built a settlement in the north for a brief period but were driven out by the Dutch in 1642.

It has also been referred to as Formosa-“Beautiful Island”- a Portuguese colonial-age name for the island of Taiwan.

The ROC (Republic of China) was founded in 1912 in mainland China. At that time, Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule as a result of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, by which the Qing (the monarchy) ceded Taiwan to Japan.

The ROC government began exercising jurisdiction over Taiwan in 1945 after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II.

Around 1.2 million people relocated from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949 along with the ROC government -they were led by Chiang Kai Shek after his Nationalists in China were defeated in the Chinese Civil War after the end of WW2 by Mao’s Communists.

Since then, the ROC has continued to exercise effective jurisdiction over the main island of Taiwan and a number of outlying islands, leaving Taiwan and mainland China each under the rule of a different government.

The Chinese government consider Taiwan to be a Chinese territory and Taiwan considers itself independent of China. In a nutshell, that is where the tension between the two nations originates. Without going into the detail that I would desperately like to, it is also the setting for my ‘Cats, Cabbages and Chiang Kai Shek’ title.

Cats: The story of the current President

The president of Taiwan is a 64-year-old woman who loves cats and is committed to the independence of Taiwan. She also rocks a very neat bob hairstyle. I love her already.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, known as the Iron Cat Lady, was re-elected in January 2020 in a landslide- a determined rebuke to China.

China claims Taiwan as its sacred territory, to be taken by force if needed, a threat President Xi Jinping reiterated a year ago while also saying he preferred a ‘peaceful solution’.

‘We hope that the Beijing authorities can understand that a democratic Taiwan with a government chosen by the people will not give in to threats and intimidation,’ Tsai told reporters after her re-election.

We saw a lot of cat-related souvenirs in Taiwan, and I was mildly devastated to not go to the cat village of Houtong– simply because we were warned against it as there were just too many tourists overrunning the village and J and E decided they would rather go shopping for electronics instead. As a committed crazy cat lady, I was happy to forgo cat tourism, given my constant proximity to felines in my everyday life and my frustration if can’t pick up, pat, cuddle or over-feed one.

Cabbages: The National Palace Museum

The National Palace Museum in Shilin District is grand, imposing and extremely well organised, with over 696,000 ancient Imperial Chinese artefacts and artworks.

The museum is housed in a big, white, purpose-built palace, designed to replicate its original home in Beijing’s Forbidden City. The collection was moved to Taiwan in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War, which in hindsight was a blessing as it saved the items from the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976) when Mao Tse Tung’s government forcibly urged the population to rid itself of the ‘Four Olds’: Old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas and embrace the Maoist thought. With the ‘old’ being systematically destroyed in China, these treasures were safe in Taiwan.

The National Palace Museum’s collection shows more than 4,000 years of Chinese art, as well as large collections of Chinese ritual bronzes, ceramics, jade, lacquerware, enamelware, decorative carvings, embroidery and tapestry, books, calligraphy, and archival documents. You need a day to go through and absorb all of this, but for most visitors, there is one main attraction.

A little jade cabbage.

This was as close and intimate as I could get to it…

It’s a tiny depiction of a bok choy, with white stalks, sea-green leaves, and a delicate locust and a katydid (a type of cricket) tucked into a leaf. The cabbage’s original home was Beijing’s Forbidden City, where historians say it probably belonged to Jin Fei, consort of the Qing-dynasty Guangxu Emperor. With cabbage, katydids, and locusts symbolizing purity and fertility, it would have been an ideal gift for the emperor’s new consort.

The cabbage is super popular- I had to line up like you have to for the Mona Lisa in the Louvre- and a bit like La Gioconda, its size is a bit, well, underwhelming for all the hype which surrounds it. Both its size (18.8 by 8.9 cm) and its subject are small. No one knows who carved it, and it’s likely less than 200 years old. A cabbage carved from priceless, imperfect jade—and owned by a member of the imperial family—is part of its cultural and artistic significance.

While many fine jade pieces are valued for their perfect structures, the jade cabbage’s original stone was riddled with cracks. The carver took the flawed stone and worked with it to reproduce the delicate leaf flares.

Jadeite Cabbage With Insects was taken to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, along with the finest treasures of the imperial collections.

It’s absolutely gorgeous of course. So delicate, unassuming and full of symbolism and imagery. The story and much clearer photos can be found here. The gift shop is full of cabbage related knick-knacks. I bought a pen with a tiny jade cabbage glued to the lid. It has since been broken, sucked up by a vacuum cleaner and never seen again.

Chiang Kai-Shek

The story of Chiang Kai Shek- the leader of Taiwan from 1949 until his death in 1975- is ubiquitous in Taipei and this legacy really needs to be explained in terms of his relationship to Dr Sun Yat Sen.

Both of these men- revere or revile them- are giants in twentieth-century Chinese history and its not in the scope of this blog to explain how instrumental they were- suffice to say their stories and legacy are safer in Taiwan than they would be on the mainland of China.

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall is not nearly as grand as the Generalissimo’s and so I didn’t take many photos. I did enjoy watching his memorial being used as a public space- I feel that memorials are much more meaningful to a community if people use the space in their everyday lives. In Australia many soldier’s memorials in small country towns- commemorating the locals who fought in Australia’s wars- are surrounded by parklands and playgrounds. A memorial should be a living, evolving thing- not a monument literally set in stone.

Tai Chi at Dr Sun Yat-Sen’s Memorial Hall

After the fall of the Qing dynasty in China in 1911, there was a power vacuum waiting to be filled by a number of warlords and political parties. Chiang Kai-shek joined the Chinese Nationalist Party (known as the Kuomintang, or KMT) in 1918 and upon party founder Sun Yat’s death at age 59 from gall bladder cancer in 1925, Chiang became leader of the KMT. Chiang expelled Chinese communists from the party and led the unification of China. Although he promised he would focus of modernisation and reform, Chiang’s government concentrated on battling Communism within China as well as confronting the incredibly brutal Japanese aggression. When the Allies declared war on Japan in 1941, China took its place among the major world powers and Chiang was considered to be the legitimate ruler of China. Civil war broke out in 1946, ending in a victory by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces and the creation of the People’s Republic of China. From 1949 until his death, Chiang led the KMT government in exile in Taiwan.

Chiang’s legacy is now disputed, as he suppressed the freedoms of many Taiwanese and ruled Taiwan with an undemocratically inclined iron fist. His memorial is very grand and well visited, whatever the current judgements may be.

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Taiwan. It is not without controversy, though. Taiwan is no longer under the iron fisted military rule of the Generalissimo and so many residents feel it is time to ‘move on’ from their history and celebrate its present. This is a debate in many countries at the moment- to what extent do we commemorate the achievements of our forebearers, if success came at great human cost and was a result of great injustices?

Possibly my favourite picture I took in Taipei- at the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, one of the sentry who clearly had runny eyes- it could have been a cold or spring hayfever from all the lovely blossoms in the surrounding gardens- was really struggling to remain still. His colleague went up to him and wiped his eyes and cheeks. It is these simple acts of kindness and empathy that bind us all together- don’t you think?

There is much more to Taipei and Taiwan than ‘Cats, Cabbages and Chiang Kai Shek’, of course! I look forward to telling you all about our other adventures soon.

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