Cities in the Spotlight: Taipei, Taiwan
Updated: Dec 27, 2022
In today's installment of cities in the spotlight we will be exploring Taipei, Taiwan.
Taipei City Information
Taipei officially Taipei City, is the capital and a special municipality of Taiwan. Located in Northern Taiwan, Taipei City is an enclave of the municipality of New Taipei City that sits about 25 km (16 mi) southwest of the northern port city of Keelung. Most of the city rests on the Taipei Basin, an ancient lakebed. The basin is bounded by the relatively narrow valleys of the Keelung and Xindian rivers, which join to form the Tamsui River along the city's western border. The city is home to an estimated population of 2,646,204 (2019), forming the core part of the Taipei–Keelung metropolitan area, which includes the nearby cities of New Taipei and Keelung with a population of 7,047,559, the 40th most-populous urban area in the world—roughly one-third of Taiwanese citizens live in the metro district. The name "Taipei" can refer either to the whole metropolitan area or just the city itself.
Taipei is the economic, political, educational and cultural center of Taiwan. It is also a part of a major high-tech industrial area. Railways, highways, airports and bus lines connect Taipei with the rest of the island. The city is served by two airports – Songshan and Taoyuan. Taipei is home to various architectural or cultural landmarks, such as Taipei 101, Eastern District of Taipei, Ximending, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Lungshan Temple of Manka, Dalongdong Baoan Temple, Hsing Tian Kong, National Palace Museum, Presidential Office Building, Taipei Guest House and several night markets dispersed throughout the city. Natural features also include Maokong, Yangmingshan and hot springs. In English-language news reports, the name Taipei often serves as a synecdoche referring to central government of Taiwan, similar to Beijing when referring to the central government on the mainland. Due to the ambiguous political status of Taiwan internationally, the term Chinese Taipei is also frequently used as a synonym for the entire country, as when Taiwan's governmental representatives participate in international organizations or Taiwan's athletes compete in international sporting events.
Taipei Historical Significance
Prior to the significant influx of Han Chinese immigrants, the region of Taipei Basin was mainly inhabited by the Ketagalan plains aborigines. The number of Han immigrants gradually increased in the early 18th century under Qing Dynasty rule after the government began permitting development in the area. In 1875, the northern part of the island was incorporated into the new Taipeh Prefecture. The Qing dynasty of China made Taipeh-fu the temporary capital of the island in 1887 when it was declared a province (Fukien-Taiwan Province). Taipeh was formally made the provincial capital in 1894. Taipei was renamed to Taihoku in 1895 when the Empire of Japan annexed Taiwan. Under Japanese rule, the city was administered under Taihoku Prefecture. Taiwan's Japanese rulers embarked on an extensive program of advanced urban planning that featured extensive railroad links. A number of Taipei landmarks and cultural institutions date from this period.
Following the surrender of Japan to Allies during 1945, effective control of Taiwan was handed to the Republic of China (ROC). After losing mainland China to the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War, the ruling Kuomintang relocated the ROC government to Taiwan and declared Taipei the provisional capital of the ROC in December 1949. Taiwan's Kuomintang rulers regarded the city as the capital of Taiwan Province and their control as mandated by General Order No. 1. In 1990, Taipei provided the backdrop for the Wild Lily student rallies that moved Taiwanese society from one-party rule to multi-party democracy by 1996. The city has ever since served as the seat of Taiwan's democratically elected national government.
Travel to Taipei
*taken from Lonely Planet*
Taipei is a friendly city whose allure lies in its blend of Chinese culture with a curious fusion of Japanese, Southeast Asian and American influences.
In many ways this 300-year-old city is like a living museum. The Taoist temples buzz with the prayers of the hopeful; the wooden boards of Japanese-era mansions creak under the feet of visitors; while the treasures in the National Palace Museum date back 5000 years. Merchant villas to military barracks have been restored, reworked and now live again as a museum or a shopfront. From the heirlooms of a tea merchant to the memories of a cemetery for the victims of the White Terror, Taipei is a city that takes great pride in celebrating its history – the triumphant and the tragic.
Taipei's oddness is one of its charms. It may be inspired by the kawaii (cutesy) culture of Japan, but there's a lot of home-grown humour in there, too. In the puppet museum you will find a strip-tease marionette; the idea of chocolate sauce on a steak is nothing out of the ordinary; themed restaurants transport you to a world where hotpot is slurped from a toilet bowl; and a park installation invites you to cycle a stationary bike whose pedals power an eerie-sounding pipe organ.
Dining out is so popular that many studio apartments in Taipei don't have kitchens: eating out is cheap, casual and tasty and many families do that or get takeaway most nights of the week. Indeed dining out is the best way to understand the Taiwanese. Whether you're getting your fingers greasy sampling snacks at one of the night markets or sharing dishes at a Taiwanese rèchǎo (stir-fried) joint, the defining characteristic is the element of fun. Yes, that is an invitation to try stinky tofu. While you're at it, you might as well have some Taiwan Beer, too!
With its lanes of blackened walk-ups and countless shopfronts, the city may look like it was thrown together in a hurry, but look again. Great care has been taken to make it a truly liveable place for people: public transport grids the city well and is fast, reliable and cheap; every few blocks there's a park with a generous supply of benches, shelters and flowers; good (and often great) coffee is available everywhere; the MRT has courtesy umbrellas free for rainy days; and a clean and free public toilet is never far away.
Must See Sites
National Palace Museum; Home to the world's largest and arguably finest collection of Chinese art, this vast hoard covers treasures in painting, calligraphy, statuary, bronzes, lacquerware, ceramics, jade and religious objects. Some of the most popular items, such as the famous Jadeite Cabbage, are always on display – although check first that it's not on loan to the southern branch in Chiayi. There are controversial plans to partially or even wholly close the museum in 2020 for three years' refurbishment. The historical range at this museum is truly outstanding. Even within a single category, such as ceramics, pieces range over multiple dynasties, and even back to Neolithic times.
Level 1 includes rare books, special exhibits, Qing and Ming dynasty furniture, religious sculptures, and a great orientation gallery to give you an overview of dynasties. Level 2 includes painting, calligraphy, a history of Chinese ceramics with abundant examples, and an interactive area with videos and a virtual tour of 20 famous paintings. Level 3 contains bronzes, weapons, ritual vessels, and Ming and Qing dynasty carvings. There is also the stunning jade collection, covering weapons, teapots, jewellery, ritual objects and the renowned Jadeite Cabbage. Level 4 was closed at the time of writing. Previously a teahouse, there are plans to convert it into more exhibition space. The classy Silks Palace restaurant is in the building to the left of the main hall. Also on the left is the second Exhibition Hall that occasionally hosts special shows. The museum offers free guided tours in English at 10am and 3pm (book online or register in person about 20 minutes before, limited to 30 people). If you prefer to move about at your own pace, try an English headphone guide (NT$150). There is also a museum gift shop worth exploring.
Longshan Temple; Founded in 1738 by Han immigrants from Fujian, this temple has served as a municipal, guild and self-defence centre, as well as a house of worship. These days it is one of the city's top religious sites, and a prime venue for exploring both Taiwan's vibrant folk faith and its unique temple arts and architecture. The temple can get very congested with tourists; try coming early in the morning (before 8am) or late in the evening (after 8pm) to avoid the crush. Longshan is dedicated to the bodhisattva of mercy, Guanyin, though in true Taiwanese style there are over 100 other gods and goddesses worshipped in the rear and side halls. Matsu, goddess of the sea, is enshrined in the back centre; Wenchang Dijun, the god of literature, to the far right (come during exam period to see how important he is); red-faced Guan Gong, the god of war and patron of police and gangsters, is enshrined to the far left; and in front of that is the Old Man Under the Moon, known as the Matchmaker or the Chinese Cupid. As with most temples in Taiwan, Longshan has been rebuilt multiple times after destruction by earthquakes, typhoons and even bombing in the last days of WWII. The present structure (with elements from the masterful 1920s and post-WWII reconstructions) doesn't have the same flow and elegance as Bao'an Temple, but it is still an impressive structure with sweeping swallowtail eaves, colourful jiǎnniàn (mosaic-like temple decoration) figures on the roof, and elaborate stone- and woodcarvings. Check out the two-of-a-kind bronze pillars outside the front hall and the incense holders outside the main hall. The handles depict a common temple motif: The Fool Holding up the Sky. The western-style appearance of the 'fools' is no coincidence. They are said to represent the Dutch (or sometimes Dutch slaves), who occupied Taiwan in the 17th century. The best times to visit Longshan are around 6am, 8am and 5pm, when crowds of worshippers gather and engage in hypnotic chanting. Or try Guanyin's birthday on the 19th day of the second lunar month, or the weeks before and during Lunar New Year.
National Human Rights Museum; This former detention centre, court and jail was where political prisoners were incarcerated and tried during the White Terror period (1947–87). The English audio guide is highly recommended. These peaceful but sombre grounds include tiny jail cells, shackles, the old commissary and a row of telephones where prisoners could speak for just 10 minutes every week with a visitor. This museum is highly recommended for the insight it gives into the horrors of authoritarianism and just how far Taiwan has come.
Shilin Night Market; Taipei's most famous night market is hugely popular with travellers – and many young locals – who come to enjoy the carnival of street-side snacking, shopping and games. In 2011, the government moved much of the action inside a covered market: the food vendors were relegated to the basement, while clothing, toys and games were given ground level, diluting all the fun. However, there are still lanes and lanes full of food stalls outside, and they retain the original buzz.
Must Try Food & Drink
Fènglísū; Fènglísū are Taiwanese pineapple cakes, one of the country's most popular desserts and souvenirs. The cakes consist of a buttery, crumbly crust that is filled with a tangy, slightly sweet pineapple jam. The name of the dish is derived from fèng lí, meaning pineapple, and sū, meaning shortcake. Originally, they were prepared during the period of China's Three Kingdoms Dynasty. The three kingdoms were separated into Wei, Shu, and Wu kingdoms, and the emperor of Shu wanted to marry a sister of Wu's emperor, so he sent a large pineapple cake as a gift. Today, the cakes are much smaller and are one of the best-selling souvenirs in Taiwan. It is recommended to serve the cake warm, preferably with a cup of hot tea on the side.
Beef Noodle Soup; The savory, spicy beef noodle soup is the national dish of Taiwan and the source of immense pride for the locals. The dish is an ideal winter comfort food, typically consisting of beef, broth, vegetables, noodles, and spices. Beef noodle soup has a great Sichuan influence dating back to the 1940s, when China was in civil war and many Chinese people moved to Taiwan, creating this cross-provincial dish and incorporating chili bean sauce and Sichuan peppercorns into it along the way. Variations are endless when making this long-simmering stew, and in Taiwan, there are numerous side dishes to accompany it, such as seaweed and braised dried tofu. Today, there is even an annual Beef Noodle Festival held in Taipei, where various restaurants and cooks compete for the prestigious title of Best Beef Noodle.
Taiwanese Scallion Pancake; Though similar varieties of scallion pancakes can be found in other Asian countries, in Taiwan they are a common and sought-after treat that is usually enjoyed as a snack or an accompaniment to other dishes. The pancakes are prepared with an unleavened dough that is flattened, sprinkled with sliced scallions, and then rolled and pressed to form a flat pancake that is pan-fried until crispy. Apart from the traditional version, these tasty snacks are occasionally prepared with the same type of dough that is rolled and deep-fried, before it is smeared with a flavorful combination of scallions. Regardless of the varieties, scallion pancakes are a staple street food in Taiwan, especially popular at traditional night markets. The pancakes can be paired with other dishes, but they are usually merely accompanied by various dipping sauces.
Lu Rou Fan; Simple, juicy, and savory lu rou fan is a popular Taiwanese dish consisting of ground pork braised in soy sauce, five-spice powder, and rice wine until it becomes tender and flavorful. It is traditionally served over rice, although some cooks like to replace the rice with noodles. Sometimes, pickled cucumbers or shiitake mushrooms are served alongside the dish. Literally translated, lu rou fan means stewed meat rice, and the dish is sometimes referred to as Taiwanese ragú. In Taiwan, lu rou fan was originally consumed as a nutritious and healthy meal for farming families, but today it can be found almost everywhere, from home kitchens to restaurants and street stalls.
Bubble Tea; Invented in Taichung, Taiwan in the 1980’s, bubble tea is a tea-based beverage that is shaken or mixed with fruit or milk. It is combined with tapioca balls, also known as bubbles, pearls, or boba, so the drink is also often referred to as boba milk tea, boba tea, tapioca tea, pearl tea or bubble drink. Over the decades, a wide range of ingredients has been included in the production, which resulted in many varieties of bubble tea. Some recipes replace milk with cream, ice cream, or soya milk, and flavor it with chocolate, coffee, ginger, caramel, rose, or lavender. Others use black tea or green jasmine tea mixed with fresh fruits such as strawberries, apples, mangos, avocados, bananas, coconut, pineapple, kiwi, or peaches. However, the most popular varieties are bubble milk tea with tapioca and bubble green milk tea with tapioca. Bubble tea is not just a beverage, it's also an interactive game, because you never know which sip will be liquid tea, and which will deliver a sticky and sweet tapioca ball through the giant straw, which is an integral part of the bubble tea experience.
Mooncake; An ancient Chinese delicacy eaten during the Mid-August Festival or Moon Festival, known as mooncake, is a pie-like pastry made with a shortcrust base called yueh ping that is traditionally filled with black sesame seed or lotus seed paste, along with red beans, roasted pork, mung beans, dates, and salted duck egg yolks. Nowadays, mooncakes are available in a variety of different sweet and savory fillings, some of which are fruits like honeydew, litchi or pineapple; chocolate or mixed nuts; abalone and seaweed; green tea, and even cream cheese or ice cream. Their round shape is not only reminiscent of the moon, but also a symbol of return or a full circle, which in Chinese philosophy stands for fulfillment, oneness, perfection, and unity. Mooncakes are meant to be shared among people, so they are typically enjoyed sliced into small wedges and usually served with Chinese tea. In ancient times, these pastries were prepared as an offering to the Moon, but over centuries they have become the most popular food of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Listed as a public holiday and an intangible cultural heritage, the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival is one of China’s most important traditions celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month when the full moon is said to be at its brightest and closest to Earth.
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