Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Asian city tour - Stop 1: Taipei

I have been spending quite a bit of time in Taipei over the past weeks, so I thought I'd share my views of the place.

Taipei is an interesting city and a great place to be for a project. It’s quite unlike any other city I’ve been too. While densely populated, it doesn’t have the throngs of people like on the mainland, or the tall buildings of New York City. It features the tallest building in the world (Taipei 101) standing only a few bocks away from concrete structures that were put up hastily in the 60s when the people of Taiwan realized they weren’t going to be taking back the mainland anytime soon from the communist party. For me, personally, it’s been a lot of fun being here. My parents grew up on Taiwan, so it’s nice to see get a better feeling for where they came from. But in addition, it’s just simply a comfortable place to be for the following reasons.

1) Most people speak English. The level of fluency is much higher in Taiwan than in mainland China. Many Taiwanese residents have relatives and friends who have moved abroad to the United States. There are also a higher concentration of American businessmen in Taipei (versus a mix a Americans and Europeans in Shanghai). Furthermore, the success of the Taiwan electronics and computer industry has demanded a level of literacy in English to communicate with the rest of the world. In Taipei, even many taxi drivers can speak enough English to have a simple conversation.

2) Most cities claim to have great food, especially in Asia, where everyone loves to eat. Taiwan can’t claim to have the best restaurants in the world like New York, or London might. It doesn’t have the variety of cuisine that you could find in Hong Kong or San Francisco. What it does have is consistently delicious and interesting food from the classiest Japanese restaurant to the corner beef noodle stall. Taiwan residents have seemingly made a profession out of discovering foods from other corners of the world and bringing it back to Taipei. Shanghai soup dumplings, Japanese teppanyaki, Macanese egg tarts, Italian espresso – it’s all here and done to perfection. As a testament to this, the Taipei restaurant Din Tai Feng has made itself famous by bringing its version of Shanghai dumplings back to Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and LA. Japanese tourists now flock to Taipei to enjoy this treat. I can’t imagine New Yorkers flying to Minneapolis to enjoy Texas barbeque, but that’s basically what’s happening here. This doesn’t even include more homegrown foods such as bubble tea, stinky tofu, and shaved ice.

3) The night markets in Taipei are the best place to sample the variety of foods that Taipei has to offer. Some unimaginable foods like pig blood hot pot, chicken feet, smoked duck wings, buns wrapped inside buns like a set of Russian dolls are all available at these street markets that don’t even open until 5 PM and hit their stride past 11 PM. Combined with a carnival-like atmosphere, it’s a must-do experience for all visitors.

If there is one drawback to Taipei, it’s that it is not easy to get to from the mainland due to the political realities of strained relations between the Taiwan and China. But I’ll save that for another day.

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