ostentatious The Grand Hotel in the capital Taipeiboasts an ornate golden archway, a lobby three storeys high and a fountain with a golden dragon spouting water
On a recent trip to Taiwan in the Far East, I was reminded of my visit to communist China 10 years ago. I wasn’t sure what to expect, except that it would be different because of how Taiwan has sold itself as a free, more modern and liberal society than mainland China.
My memory of communist China was of a vast country developing at a fast rate. There was construction everywhere, with cranes hoisting materials high above workers drilling into the ground. It looked as if a completely new nation was being built.
The locals were obsequious and courteous with the country’s biggest challenge being the pollution and traffic congestion in Beijing. It was a security-conscious nation where it was not out of the ordinary for a police officer to emerge from nowhere to stop you from taking pictures in certain places. My other enduring memory of the place was drinking green tea at every engagement – whether at a short or long meeting, cups were continually refilled. I’m not averse to green tea, so I didn’t exactly mind.
The two Chinas
It’s difficult not to make comparisons between the two countries as there are essentially two Chinas. Taiwan is known as the Republic of China, whereas the bigger and more powerful China is called the People’s Republic of China. According to China, Taiwan is still its territory and there’s an uneasy truce that exists between the two, as Taiwan constantly pushes the boundaries to assert its independence. But in many ways the two lands are interconnected, making it an economic imperative for them to maintain their relationship. In fact, China is Taiwan’s biggest trading partner.
According to government officials, 250 companies have invested in the People’s Republic of China. Although Taiwan doesn’t enjoy formal recognition by the UN as an independent country, for all intents and purposes it acts like one. It has formal diplomatic relationships with a couple of countries and a trade office in most other countries, South Africa included. Taiwan is aggressively marketing itself as great tourist destination.
“We would like to be more recognised. But our diplomatic battles are tough,” said Minister without Portfolio John Deng, who recognised that Taiwan is battling with that because of China’s “chilling effect” on potential allies. It’s even reviewing visa requirements to make it easier for prospective visitors from around the world.
Trade and relations
The US is Taiwan’s second-largest importer, but without diplomatic offices. Eyebrows were raised when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen gave new US President Donald Trump a call just after he came into office, triggering threats from mainland China. Senior government official Samuel Wu boasted about how he travelled with former South African president Nelson Mandela to Taiwan. “I personally accompanied Madiba to Taiwan in 1993. The trip went very well.
But Mandela later came under a lot of pressure to give up diplomatic ties,” said Wu. The ANC had been unhappy that Taiwan maintained relations with the apartheid government before liberation. The SA Communist Party, which maintains relations with the Chinese Communist Party, also strongly pushed for the termination of ties. Taiwan has embarked on a new economic policy through which it seeks to strengthen relations with 18 countries it has identified as important neighbours.
Beautiful tiny space
Taiwan is a beautiful country dominated by lush green mountains. Its countryside is a sprawl of vast rice plantations flooded with water. Up to 70% of the land space in the tiny country is taken up by mountains. But they have turned that into an advantage, particularly for tourism, and have burrowed through the mountains, creating picturesque tunnels across the country. High-speed trains that travel at 300km/h provide an opportunity to get around the country in a relatively short time.
Taiwan’s big cities, such as Taipei and Taichung, have night markets that either stay open throughout the night or as late as midnight or 02:00. They offer the best Chinese cuisine, clothes, phones, electronic gadgets and toys.
However, most of the clothes I tried on at the markets did not fit me because Taiwanese clothes sizes generally tend to be smaller.
Babies, cars and tunes
The Taiwanese have an interesting population problem; they mostly have an ageing population with a low birth rate among the youth. Youngsters attribute that to high living costs, especially in the cities. Government plans to come up with ideas to incentivise young couples to have babies.
I was fascinated by the number of people driving tiny scooters instead of cars. “Every family has a scooter. They are cheap and convenient. Plus the public transport is not so good,” said a Taiwanese friend.
An offbeat highlight was visiting the Chang Lien Cheng Saxophone Museum in Taichung where three generations of the Chang family have been manufacturing saxophones for decades.
Chang Lien-Cheng, a painter, researched and developed the very first saxophone made in Taiwan in 1945 and later founded the Taiwan Musical Instrument Factory, which focused on the production of woodwind instruments, producing 6 000 new saxophones per year.
Visiting Taiwan was a great outing. I battled to eat with chopsticks, but I loved the cuisine, especially the variations of fish dishes on offer. However, I politely declined the crab.
*Disclaimer: Rapule Tabane was a guest of the Taiwanese embassy
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