High rise but no risk in safe Taiwan © Duncan Graham 2007
It’s not difficult to hear Indonesian spoken in Taiwan – sometimes easier than encountering English. That’s because there are more than 100,000 Indonesians living in the booming East Asian island state.
Young Taiwanese cynics joke that if the Communists from Mainland China invaded their tiny island the war would be over by lunchtime. However the more patriotic older generation and the military will have none of this negativism; they reckon the conflict wouldn’t end till nightfall.
Living alongside a dragon on steroids focuses the mind admirably and produces a culture of intense awareness. No wonder the nation supports eight dedicated TV news and current affairs channels against Indonesia’s one, and that major street protests are about joining the UN.
Modern Taiwan was born in 1949 when the nationalist Kuomintang led by General Chiang Kai-shek fled to Formosa Island when routed by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. Defeat must have been anticipated because the Nationalists shipped big buckets of cash and much of the nation’s portable heritage out of the country.
Some of this art is on display in the splendid but sterile, look-don’t touch, National Palace Museum in capital Taipei. If you’re a serious scholar of Chinese antiquities this is the spot to visit.
Taiwan is also the place for film buffs, with a vibrant and restriction-free local industry. Taiwan shows movies like celebrated director Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution that you’ll never see uncut in Indonesia. There’s even an explicit TV sex channel so repetitiously boring viewers become their own censors.
Before the rise of militant Islam, Western defence strategy hung on the expectation that the next major global conflict would be triggered
when the army of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) crossed the Straits of Taiwan.
This is the 120-kilometer wide waterway that separates 1.3 billion Chinese who are controlled by a Communist government and the 23 million people of what is now democratic Taiwan, properly known as the Republic of China (ROC). Confused? It’s one giant Chinese puzzle.
But if the hawks think Taiwan is the future flashpoint for World War 111, there’s no sign of tension in the orderly streets of Taipei, uncluttered till the evening. Although all young men have to undergo national service there’s no outward feel of militarism or threat – except from nature.
Taiwan sits in typhoon alley, directly in the path of the giant boils churned in the South China Sea that head for the mainland, dumping oceans of rain across the 36,000 square kilometer island, gouging hillsides, flattening forests.
The locals are used to it all, and unlike Jakarta seem well prepared for the floods. High concrete walls flanking the Keelung River at its most vulnerable points protect Taipei streets and homes, though the Singapore-style subway system was flooded in 2001. When extreme danger is forecast schools, shops and businesses close till the typhoon moves on.
Tourists watching telecasts of swirling clouds and purple cones, black eyes and hyped reporters spraying terms like ‘Cat Four’ start checking their airline tickets for early departure penalties. Meanwhile the Taiwanese stay indifferent, even when their brollies are disemboweled and horizontal rain at AK-47 muzzle velocity finds all the chinks and cracks.
When not threatened by the PRC or targeted by typhoons between May and September the island is rocked by earthquakes. So this doesn’t seem the ideal spot for the world’s tallest building. But Taipei 101 (‘one more than perfection’) is a must-see marvel, and not just for height; the anti-sway technology involves suspending a 660 tonne ball inside the building.
Taipei 101 (that’s the number of floors and the address) is an engineering feat but not an architectural beauty. Like the surrounding buildings it’s fascist era drab, just right for a city that offers pylon and smokestack vistas. It’s also soon to be overtaken in height by the Burj Dubai in the Middle East with a planned 141 floors.
If you prefer staying horizontal try the bullet train opened this year. It hurtles up and down much of the 394-kilometer-long island to Kaohsiung, making land travel a joy rather than a misery.
Like Indonesia, the country was handicapped by an authoritarian military regime for decades and is critically reviewing the recent past in a bid for a new identity. It’s now trying to distance itself from the hard-line US-backed policies of the Kuomintang and dreams of conquering mainland China.
For most outsiders Taiwan is the name that’s found on the manufacturer’s plate under their camera, computer or TV. Like Singapore, the Taiwanese have few natural resources so rely on their intellectual skills, adaptability, hard work and tenacity to survive. Being Chinese that’s not difficult.
They also want tourists, but need to lift their game to encourage Indonesians. Getting a visa means negotiating with unfriendly officials in Jakarta. If they don’t like your questions they just whisk a curtain across the counter window. A visa costs Rp 350,000 (US $ 38) and takes a week or more to organize – but the paperwork is less offputting than Australian visa applications.
Eva Air is the national airline, flying direct from Jakarta and marginally cheaper than others at Rp 4.4 million (US $477) return. The staff wear uniforms last seen in East Berlin before the Wall fell, and serve Russian ice cream during the five-hour flight. The outfits are depressing but the confections are uplifting.
Once in the country the treatment of visitors improves significantly, though for a nation so advanced the absence of English is surprising. Trying to work out how to use a hotel room’s air conditioner or kettle (which I thought was a rice cooker) when all instructions are in Mandarin is a humbling experience for those who thought they were technically literate. Fire evacuation procedures? Pray they’re never needed.
A major exception to the monolingualism and boring buildings is the magnificent Grand Hotel, a giant red honeycomb built by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, complete with a hidden escape tunnel ready for the mainlanders’ invasion. So much for faith in the defence forces. The tariff starts at Rp 1.7 million (US $180) a night but you can get excellent rooms downtown with a robust breakfast and wireless internet for a third of that price.
Just watch what you plug in or your hair dryer could start smoking, whatever its age; unlike Indonesia the power is 110 volts.
The other unnerving experience is coping with the currency. Despite its grand title the New Taiwan Dollar is worth only Rp 280. Paying 390 dollars for a fast food outlet’s bucket of chicken and chips is enough to decide it’s time to diet.
There are strong links with Indonesia based on the family ties of Chinese Indonesians who fled to Taiwan after the 1998 riots that led to Soeharto quitting office. There are also 10,000 Indonesians in Taipei studying Mandarin; the university language schools have a reputation for excellence.
Then there are the 105,000 Indonesian domestic workers and laborers – the biggest overseas labor force in the island – who keep the economy booming. The annual per capita income in Taiwan is US $16,000 (Rp 148 million).
Taipei is claimed to be safer than Singapore and if the way commuters park their unguarded motor scooters at the roadside with key in the lock and helmet on the handlebars is an indicator, then the claims could be true.
If you plan a visit to the far more vibrant, glitzy and crowded Hong Kong (only 80 flying minutes away and no visa needed for Indonesians) it’s worth adding a few days to the trip and including Taiwan for the sights and differences – and to help understand the complexities of our powerful and smart neighbors.
(First published in the Sunday Post 20 January 2008)##