Photography by Emma Krasov
Taiwan’s growing prosperity, its high tech developing alongside upscale retail and hospitality, the freedom-loving stance and the innate friendliness of Taiwanese people, many of whom speak good English, make this East Asian country an attractive vacation spot for American tourists.
I was fortunate to visit the tropical island before and during one of the major annual events – 2017 Taiwan LGBT Pride Parade – the largest in Asia, attended by more than a 100 000 people, that was taking place in the capital city of Taipei. The 15th Taiwan LGBT Pride started on a warm October Saturday morning on Ketagalan Boulevard, between the Presidential Office building and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and proceeded in three directions, looping back to the thoroughfare, where the main stage was set for the community activists, famous musicians, and representatives of LGBT organizations from Taiwan, Japan and Korea.
This year advocacy theme was “Make Love, Not War – Sex Ed is the Way to Go” stressing the importance of gender equality, sex education and a humanistic approach to sex and gender issues without discrimination and stigma.
The message of acceptance sounded loud and clear in the Pride chanting, “No matter who you are, no matter who you love, stand proud!” Topical activities of the event included Gender Equality Education, Social Movement Stand Together, and Marriage Equality – the latter expected to be finally legalized in Taiwan in two years term.
A giant rainbow flag, almost the length of a city block, carried by dozens of college students and members of non-governmental organizations; elaborate costumes, music, laughter, and a generous scattering of rainbow crowns, ribbons, fans, and plumes turned the always busy, congested with traffic capital of Taiwan into a festive flowerbed, studded with happy smiling faces.
What an amazing show of unity and joy! This reporter was especially impressed with the seemingly self-regulated crowd. Not a single episode of rudeness, impatience, or any kind of conflict. A lone protester with a sign invoking religious prohibitions on homosexuality was guarded by two police officers, but the biggest harm done to him or any of the parade participants was the incessant flashing of photo cameras.
By the time evening traffic started to accumulate, rainbow-marked guys and girls dispersed into buses, subway trains, and to the surrounding streets on foot, mixing with the daily crowd, entering it as a part and parcel of the big city.
Our group of American travel journalists, in Taipei primarily for the Pride, had nevertheless a full tourist program, exploring the gorgeous island with its natural wonders, historical monuments, and superb culinary scene.
From the windows of AMBA Taipei Songshan, a new boutique design hotel – a playful brand, originated in Hong Kong – near Xinyi shopping and business district, we took our first glance at the Keelung River, circling the city in the north, and at the bamboo-shaped Taipei 101 Observatory, not long ago the tallest building in the world.
A tour of the 101-story tower included and exhilarating elevator ride that took us from the 5th to 89th floor in 37 seconds; breathtaking panoramic views of the city and its environs, and a gourmet lunch at the world-famous Din Tai Fung on the ground floor of the observation tower.
Here, in the spacious dining room, separated by a glass wall from a pristine kitchen, where all workers were clad in white sanitary suits and masks, our group was greeted by my Taiwanese namesake, Emma, a deputy supervisor of catering department.
The young woman with an infectious smile, dressed for business, and speaking effortless English, she conveyed to us the history of the notorious dumpling restaurant, awarded multiple stars, medals, and mentions by the international foodie authorities. According to the legend of Din Tai Fung, it all started in a cooking oil retail shop back in 1958 that gradually turned into a “fast food” restaurant specializing in xiao long bao, or “soup dumplings” made with pork meat and pork fat jelly that turns into aromatic liquid during steaming.
The original process of kneading, rolling, filling, folding (18 folds, no less no more) and steaming the dumplings is still meticulously followed in all the kitchens of Din Tai Fung in more than 100 locations all over the world, and of course in its flagship restaurant in Taipei. Only now more than 50 kinds of dumplings, wontons, buns, noodles, and rice dishes grace the menu, appreciated by the tourists as well as regulars who dine here a few times a week.
That is not to say that other restaurants lack fans among the local and international visitors. Some of the highlights of Taiwanese cuisine, like steamed fish, crab with bamboo shoots, thousand year egg, black chicken soup, and countless others can be enjoyed in practically every small or large eatery throughout the country.
Before we left Taipei for further exploration, we visited a festive night market – one of several, each stall teeming with eager customers attracted by the delicate aromas of pork buns, green onion crepes, and other amazingly enticing local dishes.
We also spent a good chunk of time in two remarkable museums, representing the historical past and the assertive future of the country. The National Palace Museum contains immense treasures of the Chinese imperial court, transported to Taiwan for safekeeping after the fall of the last dynasty. Among the most popular exhibits at the museum is jadeite cabbage, carved from a single stone with auspicious color variations, presenting the humble vegetable in a noble form of an exquisite art piece. The never-yielding crowd around the display case wouldn’t let me take a good picture of the precious artifact, so I had to settle for a back view that still conveys the fragile elegance of the awesome work.
MOCA Taipei, Museum of Contemporary Art, brings to the public attention the bold and edgy art created here and now. During our visit, a major exhibition, called “Spectrosynthesis – Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now” created in collaboration with The Sunpride Foundation curated by Sean C. S. Hu was on display, showcasing 22 artists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
On our way to the city of Taichung via HSR high speed rail, we spent a wonderful sunny day at the serene Sun Moon Lake, taking a boat tour and then cycling to Xian Shan visitor center, where we could see the open air exhibition of bonsai and decorative arts against a backdrop of the turquoise lake. At least four-five weddings were conducting their photoshoots along the shores.
At lunch at Lusihan – an aboriginal restaurant – we’ve not only tried the most exotic foods, like “wax apples” stuffed with dried shrimp and seaweed, and sticky rice baked and served in bamboo cups, but also learned about the tribal history of Taiwan – of 16 different tribes composing the island nation.
The Lin Hotel Taichung welcomed us into its luxurious fold offering boldly decorated rooms in red, gold, and black-and-white; supremely comfortable beds, and a breakfast hall filled with freshly made wonders of all imaginable cuisines.
The day program started with a visit to the historic 1927 Miyahara building – formerly a Japanese eye doctor’s hospital, currently the sought after Dawn Bakery, where dressed in Japanese military uniform sales clerks dish out samples of heavenly cheesecakes, and give cautionary warnings on expiration dates of pineapple cakes and mooncakes, packed in dainty boxes made of Japanese wrapping paper.
Then we headed to a fun and exciting Pearl Milk Tea Workshop with Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House. In a special classroom on the top floor of a popular restaurant we were educated on producing the real original bubble tea, invented here four decades ago by the founder Liu Han-Chien. We learned the difference between bubble tea (shaken into foam) and boba tea (with added tapioca pearls), and upon successful completion of our course each of us received a certificate of our iced tea mastery!
Traversing the entire country, next we landed in the Southern city of Tainan, a former capital, densely populated with historical monuments, like Chihkan Tower (Fort Provintia) a former Dutch outpost on Formosa, built in 1653 during the Dutch colonization of Taiwan, and Anping Old Fort near a “tree house” – a skeleton of an ancient structure completely overwhelmed by an overgrown banyan tree.
We marveled at the enlightened austerity of Tainan Confucius Temple and at the lavish gilded décor of The Grand Matsu Temple, a.k.a. the Great Queen of Heaven Temple, where at the time of our visit middle-aged priestesses in bright-yellow silk robes performed a ceremony to the sound of drums.
At the Du Hsiao Yueh noodle house we all took the same picture of a beautiful blue and white plate of noodles with a bright orange shrimp on top – the same that serves as the restaurant’s logo and is served to every diner who ever ventures in.
At the designer boutique hotel, Jia-Jia at West Market, we slept in artfully decorated rooms, ate at a communal table in the cozy lobby filled with inventive artwork, and participated in one of the hotel’s cultural activities – a kind of a cosplay, when we all donned Taiwanese garb, offered by the staff, and walked around in it through the lively stalls of the historic West Market. Apparently, the hotel CEO, also an artist, creates these fashions from vintage fabrics, formerly found at the West Market. She offers her guests an opportunity to try them on and walk in them, reaching a double goal – to familiarize foreigners with the traditional Taiwanese attire, and to remind the locals of their national traditions.
Posing for a group photo in my gorgeous vintage dress (which I eventually bought from the hotel and brought home to wear on special occasions) I thought that traveling in a company of gay men – well-mannered, kind and with a great sense of humor – for moi had its undeniable advantage.
More information on Taiwan travel at: www.taiwan.net.tw.