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[Mr and Mrs Derb spent the second half of July on vacation in the Far East — ten days in Taiwan, then four days in Hong Kong. Here are some random observations about Taiwan. Since our Hong Kong visit overlapped into August, I’ll post on that in next month’s diary.
I last came to Taiwan forty-five years ago almost to the day, arriving July 23rd 1971 and staying for six weeks. Mrs Derb, a mainland-Chinese, had never been to Taiwan at all.]
Two weeks in Yellowtopia. The first thing you notice, strolling around in a Chinese city — in this case Taipei, the capital of Taiwan — for the first time in many years, is the appalling absence of racial diversity. Everybody in Taipei is Chinese.
Well, of course, not quite everybody. You come across a round-eye occasionally — so occasionally that you stare at each other for a couple of beats, then look away in embarrassment. And I’ve no doubt there are local concentrations here and there — around the universities, perhaps.
We saw precious few non-Chinese, though, and we were by no means slumming it. We stayed in a tourist hotel — not a grand one, but decently nice — and ambled among the crowds in touristy places like the Shilin Night Market and the National Palace Museum. Those crowds were well-nigh all Chinese … or at any rate East Asian: I suppose some proportion were tourists from Japan and Korea.
Taiwan is a Yellowtopia. Outside a few minor and particular social contexts, the Chinese don’t mind foreigners. They even occasionally marry them. Still they would never be such bloody fools as to invite foreign settlement in numbers so great as to demographically challenge the native stock.
As to permitting settlement in those numbers un-invited: Well, there are degrees of folly too extreme to be contemplated by any civilization that has not lost its collective mind.
Cultural Marxism with Chinese characteristics
Not that race-guilt-mongering is totally absent from the scene in Taiwan. The current (since January this year) President Tsai Ing-wen is a Cultural Marxist determined to right historical wrongs, or at any rate to make proper gestures in that direction.
Tsai could never go full Angela Merkel, throwing open Taiwan’s borders to hordes of immigrants from a radically different culture. I don’t say she might not wish to; but if she tried it, she’d be lynched by the citizenry. She has, though, found a target for her race-guilt yearnings: Taiwan’s aborigines.
Before the Chinese showed up in the seventeenth century, Taiwan was home to Polynesian peoples speaking languages related to Filipino, Hawaiian, Indonesian, Maori, and the others. Some paleoanthropologists have argued that Taiwan is in fact the original homeland from which all these peoples scattered; but I don’t know the current status of this theory.
Once Chinese settlement got going in earnest, the inevitable happened: the aborigines were absorbed, killed, or chased off into the mountains. Actual self-identifying aborigines now number around half a million — one in forty of Taiwan’s population. Many more Taiwanese than that have some aborigine ancestry, though. One of President Tsai’s grandmothers was an aborigine.
So bring on the race guilt! On August 1st this year President Tsai issued a formal apology to the aborigines. The incoming Chinese, she said:
took everything from the first inhabitants who, on the land they have known most intimately, became displaced, foreign, non-mainstream and marginalized.
Marginalized! The lady has plainly made a close study of CultMarx jargon.
One of our tour guides, an admirably cynical and plain-spoken fellow, gave us a politically incorrect (and therefore probably true) angle on the subject.
The government gave them title to land where they live, in the mountains and islands. Developers built villas and retreats for city people, who pay rent to the aborigines. So they don’t have to work, just wait for the rent checks. They sit around all day drinking and getting fat. Their life expectancy is like fifty-five.
I didn’t think to ask if they’ve been given casino licenses.
The shape they’re in
Whatever the situation in aboriginal areas, Taiwan’s cities seem not to have any sensationally obese citizens such as are commonly seen in the U.S.A. Urban Taiwanese for the most part look trim, healthy, and well-dressed.
For a visitor from the States, masculinity is noticeable. (Although it is of course wicked to notice.) There is a tough, husky, aggressive variety of Chinese male much more in evidence in the homelands than in the U.S.A. Our immigration system favors the dorkier tail of the Chinese-male masculinity distribution.
I knew this, having spent some of my formative years in Chinese cities among all types, but had forgotten it in my long absence.
I once had a Chinese boss who had served in Taiwan’s equivalent of the Marine Corps. He was one of those still, quiet, scary types who gave the impression that when hungry he might chow down on a brick. His stories about basic training were as hair-raising as anything I’ve heard from Parris Island alumni.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 has been blamed on Russian misperceptions of the Japanese character. The story goes that the Tsar’s officer class knew Japan only from reading Pierre Loti’s 1887 bestseller Madame Chrysanthème (the ultimate source for Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly). Loti’s novel portrays the Japanese as effeminate, comical, and none too bright. The Russians assumed they’d have an easy victory. In the event, they were routed.
False stereotypes can have unhappy consequences.
The persistence of difference
One kind of diversity that counted for a great deal in Taiwan forty-five years ago was the distinction between waisheng (mainland-born) Chinese and neisheng (native-born).
The waisheng were those who came over from the mainland in Chiang Kai-shek’s baggage train after Chiang lost the civil war to Mao Tse-tung in the late 1940s. It was a hereditary caste: If you were waisheng, your kids were waisheng too. You spoke standard Mandarin Chinese.
The neisheng were the Chinese already here when Chiang arrived, descendants of those who had settled in the three centuries prior. They spoke a thick local dialect called Taiyu. Older educated people could usually speak Japanese, too: Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945.
A lot of water has flowed under Taiwan’s bridges since I was last here in 1971, when Chiang Kai-shek was still in charge. There have, for example, been three neisheng Presidents (the incumbent Ms Tsai being the third). I’d supposed the waisheng–neisheng distinction would have faded away altogether by now.
Not so. Mandarin is understood everywhere today, but you still hear a lot of Taiyu, especially in the countryside. (In the Taipei subway system, station stops are announced in four languages: Mandarin, Taiyu, Cantonese, and English.) A peasant can safely be assumed to be neisheng; a senior Civil Servant, though somewhat less safely, to be waisheng.
According to one acquaintance, himself a neisheng, there is even a difference in pronunciation of Mandarin. That language has a u-umlaut vowel, like the one in German Glück or French lune. The neisheng still, after seventy years of compulsory school Mandarin, can’t do it. The actual Chinese word for “Mandarin,” for example, is Guoyu, with an understood umlaut on that last “u.” A neishengsays something like Guoyi, with a short English “i” at the end.
Assimilation isn’t easy, even without race differences in play.
The rewards of ambiguity
The young Saint Augustine asked the Lord to give him chastity and continence, “but not yet” (sed noli modo). Taiwan’s approach to its National Question is Augustinian in that sense.
One of the big two political parties, the KMT, favors union with the mainland — but not yet! The other, the DPP, favors Taiwan becoming an independent nation — but not yet!
Thus the island floats forward in a happy cloud of ambiguity: self-governing, with its own laws, historical narrative, parliament, and military, yet recognized as a nation by almost nobody at all.
(Taiwan even has its own calendar, counting years from the overthrow of the imperial system in 1912 — Year One. In public documents and inscriptions, this is Year 105.)
This cheerful blurring of reality plays into the Chinese love of pretense and deceit, but I don’t suppose it can last for ever. It may not even outlast the present dictator of communist China, Xi Jinping, who is exceptionally aggressive and assertive, although so far mainly against his own domestic political opponents.
The ambiguity has served Taiwan well, though. When I lived here in 1971 Chiang Kai-shek’s government was struggling to hold on to China’s seat on the U.N. Security Council. There were propaganda posters everywhere pressing the case. Everyone assumed that if the Security Council seat was lost, paratroopers of the People’s Liberation Army would be descending from the skies in companies and battalions shortly afterwards.
Well, the seat was lost, in November that year. Seven years later the U.S.A. recognized Communist China. Still the paratroopers did not descend. Instead, a busy, prosperous, and distinctive nation has emerged; except that you’re not supposed to call it a nation.
(I grind my teeth on the word “prosperous” there. With all the diplomatic uncertainty in 1971, people who could sell up and leave Taiwan were doing so. Property prices were at rock bottom. You could buy a nice apartment in Taipei for next to nothing. I should have bought: Taipei property prices nowadays look like phone numbers. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.)
Taiwan has made one concession to mainland culture: When they want to write the words of their language alphabetically, they now use the pinyin system developed by the communists.
They didn’t have much choice. To key Chinese words into a computer or smartphone you need an alphabetic system (or else a keyboard with several thousand keys). Software, including the software that processes your keystrokes, is written for the much bigger mainland market.
As always in such cases, though — think of British gallons versus American gallons — it never works out quite right. Taiwan pinyin is slightly “off,” like a radio station not tuned right. A big green expressway sign directs you to “Gaosing” — not a legal spelling in mainland pinyin (should be “Gaoxing”).
I’m glad to see, though, that Taiwan is holding on to the elegantly fussy older style of Chinese ideographs, resisting the ugly and stupid simplified characters brought in by the ChiComs. The spirit of orthographic reaction lives on.
I wonder if there has ever in history been a culture as shamelessly gustatory as China’s. When I’m with a group of Chinese friends I tell them I’ve set a stopwatch going to see how long they can sustain a conversation before everyone’s talking about food. The median is I think about one minute.
Here are some of the things I ate at the Shilin Night Market in Taipei: frog eggs, duck tongue, squid mouth, pig blood cake, curry fish balls, stinky bean curd.
Monkey brains, knocked out of the living critter’s head with a golden hammer, seemed not to be available. Given what you hear about the lifestyles of China’s rich and famous, though, I bet it’s just a matter of knowing where to go.
Keeping in with the supernatural
In old China every town had a protecting deity, the cheng-huang-ye. Towns in Taiwan still do: we visited the temple of the town god for Hualian, on the east coast.
At the risk of offending the city god of Taipei, I have to say that Taiwan’s capital is a charmless place, hard to like. Fatally for a capital city, it has no central landmark: no Eiffel Tower, no Statue of Liberty, no Tower of London, no Kremlin. There is the 101 skyscraper, but it’s a tinny, ugly thing. We didn’t bother to visit.
Taipei has one big minus and one big plus, and they’re both the same thing: It’s surrounded by hills. This is a minus because smog gets trapped in the bowl. With a million auto exhausts exhausting and ninety-five degrees of heat, air quality is not good.
It’s a plus because you’re only a subway ride away from the quiet, leafy hills, with some lovely temples. I especially recommend the Huiji temple in Zhishan Park, which is everything a Chinese temple should be.
Struggling to find something nice to say to appease the deity, I’ll admit the subway system is one of the better ones, far cleaner and better organized than New York’s (a low bar) or London’s (not much higher). I know that’s not fair. Taipei’s planners could use modern methods and materials; New York’s are stuck with what 1904 bequeathed to them. Still, it’s nice to spend an aggregate hour or so on subway platforms without seeing a single rat.
And the people of Taipei were, I should say, uniformly friendly and helpful. As I said, the Chinese don’t mind foreigners, in sensible quantities.
If it’s nice, likeable cities you’re after though, I recommend Kaohsiung in Taiwan’s southwest. I dimly remember Kaohsiung from 1971 as a gritty, industrial place. There’s still some of that, but today’s Kaohsiung as a whole is clean, spacious, and attractive. Check out Chengqing Park with its beautiful lakes.
There now: I may have ticked off the city god of Taipei, whoever he is (Google no help here), but I have the Kaohsiung guy on my side. You don’t want to vex too many supernatural beings.
You can’t go back
And then, Taroko Gorge. This is a sensational natural feature — a gorge! — in east-central Taiwan, through which Chiang Kai-shek’s government cut a road in the 1950s.
It was a very scary road indeed in 1971, when I rode along much of it by bus. Looking out the window at a thousand-foot precipice six inches from the bus’s wheels, I recall asking my companion, the student son of a family I had befriended: “Do they lose many buses on this road?” “Not many,” he replied cheerfully.
Now things are more civilized. Earthquakes and typhoon-induced landslides have done their work. Some of the tunnels have collapsed; some stretches of the road can only be traversed with care, at low speed. No longer having the nerves of a 26-year-old, I’m glad.
A sentimental recollection: Back then the bus for some reason would not take us all the way to Tienhsiang, so we walked the last couple of miles. It was fiercely hot, almost hot enough to dim the astonishing glories of the landscape we were walking through, which seemed to me like being in a traditional Chinese painting.
We heard the sound of falling water nearby. Looking over the side of the road, we saw a lovely pool, deep but with perfectly clear water, in a bowl of smooth white rock. The pool was fed by a small waterfall from the precipice above.
We clambered down, stripped off our clothes, and leapt howling into the pool. Water never felt so good. We splashed for a while, then climbed out and sunbathed naked on the rocks.
Yes, I know, it sounds like a gay fantasy. People didn’t think like that in 1971, though. At any rate, we didn’t. It was just glorious relief from the heat, in a stunning landscape.
So as the bus chugged along towards Tienhsiang last week I was looking out for that spot, to see if it had survived the landslides.
I don’t think it had. The best candidate spot was where the original road had been swept away and replaced by the Kind Mother Bridge (慈母橋), a hundred yards further out from the cliff face.
I’m not sure, though. I don’t regret looking; but it’s good to be reminded that you can’t go back, and really shouldn’t try.
The China Problem
Here’s another big universal truth: Some things just don’t scale up.
Is Taiwan actually well-governed? My impression was, not. One must of course make allowance for the partisan preferences of people one is talking to, but President Tsai seems not to command much respect. Kong xin is a common nickname for her; literally “empty heart,” but xin carries something of “mind” as well as “heart.” The idea is that she talks a lot of empty words, with not much sincerity — sincerity being one of the highest Confucian virtues.
Corruption is rampant. Our cynical tour guide, on the two big parties: “Everyone expects the KMT to be corrupt; but when the DPP turns out to be corrupt, people are surprised.” The last DPP President, Chen Shui-bian, was convicted of corruption after stepping down in 2008, although whether he was guilty as charged or the victim of an opposition frame-up remains disputed.
A cab driver in Changhua — where, by the way, we drove down long streets full of stores shuttered and empty on a Monday mid-morning:
Last month I worked 440 hours. There’s no relief. It’s hard to make a living if you don’t have a government job, really hard. Me: Isn’t there a law against working so many hours?
He: Sure there is. Laws are for the rich, though. If I try to sue them, they’ll get lawyers. I can’t afford lawyers. Laws are for people who are rich and connected, not for people like me.
At times like that you remember why labor unions came up. Sure, too many degenerated into feather-bedding and racketeering; and public-sector labor unions are a terrible idea, if not an absolute logical contradiction. Originally, though, labor unions had a purpose and a mission, neither of which was ignoble.
A Chinese friend in Hong Kong introduced us to his daughter, 14 years old and studying at a high school in Ohio. Last summer she attended a chess summer school; now she’s a local chess champion in her state.
That’s a random acquaintance. I could offer a hundred similar anecdotes. Chinese people are so smart — so capable, so energetic, so damn smart. Why can’t they get the hang of rational, honest, consensual government?
As I’ve observed elsewhere, Chinese people who have settled in Anglo-Saxon countries like ours “have attained not only the American dream, but the Chinese dream, the great dream of all Chinese people throughout history: to escape from Chinese government.”
But if Chinese people are so smart and capable, why is Chinese government so crappy?
Why? Because of that big universal truth I started out with: Some things just don’t scale up.
Just one brief Taiwan-related observation.
Taiwan in late July had an ideal exchange rate. Ideal, I mean, for the math geek.
See, we chronic arithmeticians carry a lot of numbers around in our heads. One of them is the square root of ten: 3.1622777. It follows of course that the square root of one thousand is 31.622777.
So seeing an exchange rate of 31.62 NT$ to the US$, I knew at once that my mental powers would not be much exercised by currency conversion. Multiplying both sides of the equation by 31.62, one thousand NT$ equals 31.62 US$, to within a few pennies. NT$100 is US$3.16, and so on.
There’s only one number to remember, with due caution over the decimal point.
It’s been a great vacation, arithmetically and in every other way.