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Return Ticket

August 31, 2010
by Max Jacobson

Sometimes you return to a destination after a long interval and come away with the realization that the changes you perceive are more about you than about the destination. Once I was an intrepid backpacker who spoke mostly English. Today, I am a 60-year-old man who speaks passable Cantonese and fluent Japanese, and I like my creature comforts.

In 1980, I spent a month in Taiwan, hitchhiking from city to city. The trip was intended as a final fling before settling down. I was headed for Tokyo, where I would marry the Japanese girl I met while living in Berkeley. Neither of us realized then how impermanent life’s plans could be.

Taiwan was, as now, crowded, industrial, and determinedly Chinese. I found a small island no bigger than the state of Maine, but with abundant natural beauty, and a sense of nationalism bordering on jingoism. People would ask me if I had been to the Mainland, and then, inevitably, which I preferred. When I replied that I preferred their country, Taiwan, they visibly swelled. I was, of course, being polite.

Food was and still is a national preoccupation. Taiwanese director Ang Lee made his reputation with a food-obsessed film, Eat Drink Man Woman, but the movie didn’t go far enough. Delicious scents of street food are everywhere.

During that initial trip, I canvassed the island, stopping at the beautiful Taroko Gorge in the northeastern interior, the Ami Cultural Center in the east coast city of Hualien, and Alishan, a mountain where locals and tourists congregate at dawn to see the sun rise over the summit.

The highlight was a Buddhist monastery at Shihtoushan, located on the top of a densely forested mountain. The monks who reside there eat only what they grow; rice, millet, soybeans, and vegetables. Despite the August heat at sea level, the monastery was cool. I stayed two days, taking my meals in silence, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. I may not be cut out for the monastic life, but the two-day visit was restorative, and the dishes I ate there were transcendent: tofu as delicate as a soufflé, peppers and eggplant with soy and rice wine glaze, and seitan cutlets that tasted like free-range chicken. My stay was gratis, unlike the overnight charge levied today.

I also remember an unusual meal I had in Taipei. The city has hundreds of "barber shops" where men would go for massages, or more, as women posed by their barber chairs. I walked in for a haircut, and was somewhat taken aback when the pretty Japanese-speaking Taiwanese girl started aggressively rubbing my leg.

Because I spoke some Japanese, I was able to withdraw, but not before I saw that some of her colleagues were cooking food in a hot pot behind the main room. "Do you like Chinese food?" she asked, and before I knew it, I was sharing the pot with five or six masseuses. Chalk it up to karma. Today, there is a car dealership where those shops once stood.

Fast-forward 30 years, to an eight-lane highway to Taipei from Taoyuan International Airport, which was just nearing completion during my initial visit. Today’s Taipei is a huge metropolitan area of nearly 7 million. Thirty years ago, a taxi from the airport took me past souvenir shops, massage parlors, and fallow fields. And my driver, in spite of my unintelligible protestations, insisted on taking me to a souvenir shop, massage parlor, and gas station first.

That’s not going to happen in Taiwan today, because the Third World taxi driver tricks have vanished along with most of the alleys, prostitutes, and rickshaw drivers. Today’s Ilha Formosa, the "beautiful island" named by the Portuguese, is modern, the way today’s China might have looked had Chiang Kai-shek not lost the civil war with his archenemy, Mao.

In ’79, the island was in the iron grip of Chiang Ching-kuo, the Generalissimo’s son, and his father’s Kuomintang (KMT) party. Even talking about China was taboo in that era. This Taiwan is more free and easy, and for the first time in its brief history, has a non-KMT President. Meeting and talking with young, English-speaking Taiwanese, one gets the feeling that anything is possible. But the specter of the Mainland, and largely unwanted unification, is never far away.

Taiwan is the world’s second most densely populated country, after Bangladesh, but it is considerably easier to navigate than the Mainland. A bullet train will take you the length of the island in under two hours. The official language here is Mandarin, but many people lapse into the Fukien dialect spoken locally.

As I approach the north edge of Taipei, I spot my first destination, the National Palace Museum, a grand series of buildings nestled against the side of a hill. This was my first stop 30 years ago, not counting the driver’s unscheduled detours.

The Generalissimo landed in 1949 with an army of 2 million refugees, along with rare artifacts from the Forbidden City, the pick of the Mainland’s art treasures. The Museum, which can display only a fraction of its huge collection at any one time, is the Chinese art world’s Louvre and Hermitage rolled into one, notable for Ch’ien-lung porcelains, jadeite cabbages, and entire cities carved onto fragments of whalebone.

Walking in, I realize the museum has changed. In 1980, most of the items on display—some of the thousands of treasures Chiang Kai-Shek brought here in crates from the Mainland—sat unprotected on the museum floor as they do at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Now, most are encased in glass, and interactive bilingual displays and English-speaking docents are on hand to explain their significance.

From the museum I head into the center of Taipei, clean, modern, the very face of 21st-century Asia. Young women sport the latest European and Japanese fashions, swing Prada bags, and walk in Manolo Blahnik shoes. The men have their ears glued to their iPhones.

One thing I missed the first time was the profound influence Japan has had here, from urban planning to the sushi and other Japanese dishes you get at almost any temple, shopping mall, or convenience store. This was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945. Many people over 70 still speak fluent Japanese.

My 1980 visit took place during a sweltering August; I stayed in a three-dollar room at the White Star. The temperature hovered at 90 degrees and the humidity was unbearable. There was no air conditioning at that price. I had to leave the room door open at night just to fall asleep.

This time, I arrive in December, when the climate is rather like it is in Southern California, and put myself in a Hyatt, with dim sum on the club floor. Later, I walk across the street to Taipei 101, a skyscraper, and have a Lemon Drop on the 85th floor. It doesn’t taste remotely like the snake blood I drank in that city’s legendary Snake Alley as a younger man. Would I do that today? Not on your life.

The Grand Hyatt Taipei is a luxury hotel, but some Chinese are wary of it. It was built on land that was formerly a cemetery, and the Chinese have their own superstitions. In most Chinese hotels, there is no fourth floor, the number being phonetically similar to their word for death.

Among the treasures that the Generalissimo took with him when he left the Mainland were the country’s best chefs. The shin-i-dai, or new generation trained by them, maintain that Taiwan has the best Chinese food in the world. I can’t argue, based on what I ate. And street food is still a religion here. Virtually every neighborhood is dotted with vendors and stalls, which magically appear when the night markets are unfurled after sunset. Judging by the throngs, locals seem to favor Shilin Night Market, near the Jintian MRT Station.

Later that day, my sober, spinsterish guide, Lily, and her assistant, a 20-year-old who goes to Cornell and speaks Valley Girl English when she isn’t speaking Mandarin on her cell phone, take me to a street market adjacent to the ornate Dalongdon Bao-an Temple.

Lily seems annoyed at my attempts to speak Mandarin, but her young friend is amused. I ask her repeatedly how to say the kinds of things they don’t teach you at the local Berlitz, such as "I’m really pissed off." Chi sze waw-le, Daisy tells me, conspiratorially. "That’s not proper Mandarin," says Lily, as she trundles off to buy a few steamed buns for her mother.

Lily, it turns out, is the eldest of three daughters, the same demographic as the three women in the Ang Lee film, but with a vigilant mother instead of a sensualist chef father. I savor street fare like yu tou pin, meat-filled taro cakes, chewy to-lan, hot, chewy Fuzhou-style (black) pepper buns with wads of steamed pork in their centers, and roasted ears of fresh corn, seasoned with black pepper. Lily looks on, somewhat disapprovingly.

In its retail maze, you’ll bump elbows with the masses to get within striking distance of the Versace and Hello Kitty knockoffs. If you plan to trot out your Mandarin down here, you could be disappointed. Most vendors will be speaking the local Fukien dialect. This can make choosing the best oajen, or oyster omelet, a daunting task, but pick the ones with tiny oysters—they’re tastier. Lily is amused when I call the dish by its Taiwanese name. "You learn very fast," she tells me. I decide not to tell her that I ate them every day during my first visit here.

Leaving Taipei, I head for Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan, so named because the view from the east side of the lake resembles the sun, and from the west side, the moon. Thirty years ago, it was circled by a largely unpopulated path. Today, the lake, located in a lovely valley at 2,500 feet, is ringed with hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. If you spend the night, boating on the lake at sunrise is an unforgettable thrill—like standing at the bow of a ship gliding across a Chinese scroll painting. If you have the inclination, dine at Pu-Le, a locavore’s dream. The restaurant serves a 12-course banquet of local specialties, including crusty glutinous rice with assorted sausages and a sweet, delicate amaranth porridge laced with tiny whitebait.

Taiwan’s oldest city and Chiang’s provisional capital is Tainan, a lovely place where there are still many wooden houses and beautifully ornate temples. In 1980, I stayed in a youth hostel and was treated to dinner by a Mormon, who was in the country on a two-year mission. This time, I stay in a business hotel, and eat in the century-old Tu Hsiao Yueh, which has a lovely farmhouse décor. The specialty is a homemade, ramen-like noodle in shrimp broth with minced pork sauce. The following day, I have lunch at Chou’s, where people line up for shrimp rolls, deep-fried spring rolls with shrimp forcemeat in the center, for 50 cents apiece.

The last place I visit is Taiwan’s second largest city, Kaohsiung, which I missed the first time around. I associate this city with one of my greatest regrets. In 1982, a team of Japanese bridge players invited me to the city to participate with them in an all-Asia tournament. Because of my impending marriage, I didn’t go. When they returned, they told me the trip had included a stop in Beijing, where they played bridge with Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor.

The city, with 1.5 million, still feels like a small town, somehow. At the country’s southern edge, there is a huge hilltop lighthouse facing the northernmost islands of the Philippines. In the City Center, there is a bucolic park along the city’s Love River, beautiful after dark, when the lights twinkle like stars on the sides of the high rises.

Later, as the evening winds down, I see lovers holding hands and snuggling along the river walk. This would have been unthinkable in 1980, although I wouldn’t have hesitated to do it, if I had had a suitable companion. To the traditionally modest Chinese, outward displays of affection were once taboo. Today, I’d be the one hesitating. How ironic that I’ve become the prude.

This has been a memorable visit, for the food, better than I experienced on a shoestring budget when Taiwan was still a developing country, and for what I learned about myself: One can’t rekindle the past. Though I’m no longer married to my Japanese wife, we remain friends to this day. I have a wistful feeling that none of this would have been possible had we never met.

Max Jacobson is a Las Vegas–based food and wine journalist, but travel is his true mistress. He has lived in several countries, mostly to sample the cooking. Given his druthers, he’d almost always be somewhere else.
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