We arrived in Singapore by way of the Philippines. We came ready to see many of the things that Singapore is most famous for excluding plastic surgery, which came recommended by Time Magazine as one of the top 10 things to do in Singapore. Unfortunately tragedy struck….
A word to the wise, be careful of airplane food! At least if you are vegetarian. I’m not sure why I indulged in the airplane food, especially since I had some snacks with me. But, I was hungry and smothered in butter the airplane meal smelled really good. So I ate around the beef. I ended up getting a little sick the first night. I’m not positive it was the airplane food or the rice we got later on that night, but stomach bugs while traveling are the absolute worst.
Because of that, my photos of Singapore are a little limited. We ended up staying in a hostel in the Chinatown area, which because of the quickly approaching lunar New Year was bustling with people and decorations. To get to our hostel we had to battle crowds and street vendors, and wade through loud music and shiny red decorations. There was also construction in the area, which I thought was poorly timed due to the onset of the New Year. The construction wasn’t your run of the mill 9-5 either; they would hammer until around 10pm and start in the morning at 5am.
Here is a photo of the area decorated for Chinese New Year.
Although I felt queasy in the morning, I ventured out, refusing to surrender. We went to the Jurong Bird Park a 20-minute cab ride outside of the city. It felt a lot like the Animal Kingdom at Disney, but classier. It was very beautiful and the animal habitats were well maintained with fun facts and a lot of opportunities to feed/interact with the birds. I managed to stay just long enough to see the bird show. Which featured many different kinds of parrots, toucans, flamingos, etc doing flying, walking and speaking tricks. The most impressive was probably the parrot who can not only sing Happy Birthday, but also count in Mandarin and English.
I got a few photos of the birds in action.
Unfortunately shortly after, I had to head back to the hostel to rest for the remainder of the day. I had quite an interesting cab ride back though. My cab driver was extremely talkative and decided to tell me all about Singapore.
Similar to Hong Kong, similar was developed as a trading post by the East India Company. It was founded in 1819, thus the British maintained sovereignty over the island in 1824. Also similar to HK, it endured Japanese occupation during World War II. In 1963, Singapore declared independence from Great Britain and united with the former British territory of Malaysia. Two years later, the two separated. It is a key economic and financial hub, not only in Asia, but the world.
Being a male citizen, my cab driver had to perform his obligatory military service. Because of the limited space in Singapore, the military carries out it’s drills in Taiwan, thus he had also been to Taiwan and was interested in how I came to live there. Not surprisingly his Taiwanese was better than mine.
I asked him how many languages he spoke. He told me five; English, Mandarin, Tamil, a little Malay and Taiwanese. Singaporeans do not all speak the same language, or share the same religion, or have a self-described shared culture. Even though English is the first language of the nation, but most consider one of Singapore’s secondary languages to be their mother tongue. In school, they usually learn some combination of English, Mandarin, Tamil or Malay. The subways will announce the trains in all four languages.
The first fun fact he told me was about the bird park. “You know why they built it?” he asked. No, I replied, Why? He told me it was actually because the government wanted to build an oil refinery nearby that area of land, but the residents protested because they didn’t want the chemicals in their air and water. The government offered a compromise. I suppose, in order to make up for whatever environmental destruction caused by the construction of the refinery, they would build this Bird Sanctuary - a government sponsored park to protect birds and their habitat. In case, god-forbid something funky were to be in the air or water, birds are much more sensitive to their environment. In other words, they’d die first.
Secondly, he told me was about the license plates of the cars. “Look there!” he said. That license plate is different than the rest because it is a night-and-weekend license plate. Since Singapore is such a small city-island-state and has such high population density, the government restricts the number of cars on the road in order to lessen pollution and congestion. Car owners must pay duties 1.5 times the cost of their car and purchase a Singaporean Certificate of Entitlement for their car, which only lasts 10 years. Apparently the cost of the Singaporean certificate of entitlement alone would buy a Porsche in the United States, however those who have a 10-year-old Porsche in Singapore must pay a hefty fine in order to keep their “antique” car on the road.
Next he pointed out a building we passed with the insignia Singapore Press Holdings in large letters. “That,” he said, “is Singapore’s largest newspaper.” Singapore Press Holdings has close links to the government, and holds a monopoly on written news in Singapore. He told me that they often print just exactly what the government wants them to. Indeed, Singapore’s media industry has sometimes been criticized for being too regulated.
Next, he told me that Singapore’s unemployment rate was very low, only about 1.8-2.8 percent and the healthcare system is phenomenal as well. This is, according to my cab driver, because the economy in Singapore is so really thriving. Thousands of workers from Malaysia cross the border everyday in order to take advantage of jobs and opportunities here in Singapore. He also mentioned that real estate and space in Singapore was very limited. So, if I were looking for a husband if I found a man who owned a house with a lawn I should definitely marry him, because if he can afford to have a lawn or garden he is definitely rich.
I slept deeply all afternoon, but woke up just in time for dinner. I wanted to meet up with a friend from Georgetown doing Princeton in Asia in Singapore while I was in town. We grabbed a bite and then walked around the harbour. Below, see the picture of the Marina Bay Sands - the hotel with the famous boat shaped top and infinity pool.
We also walked around the Supertree Garden in the Gardens by the Bay. People say they look a lot like the settings from the movie Avatar.
In truth, they are pretty otherworldly. Then we walked around the harbour at night time.
On my way back to Chinatown, I snapped this picture of someone with his dogs who was really into to Chinese New Year. Perhaps this demonstrates the craziness that Chinatown attracts at this time of year.
The next day we moved slowly in the morning. First, walking around the Chinatown area, then heading toward Little India. As I mentioned before, Singapore is full of diasporas. People from various areas of the world immigrated to Singapore throughout history. It’s hard to tell after only a few days whether the people have really merged together or stayed steadfast in the natural independent diasporas that formed. You can tell however, the Singapore is definitely shaped by this diversity. Because of the various cultures, languages and religions, Singapore has really flexible and encompassing identity and people aren’t surprised that I can speak English or may not be all that I appear to be. After doing a thorough swoop of the area we did some souvenir shopping and got henna tattoos. Afterwards we had an amazing Indian meal at a pretty future restaurant that had us order our meal on I-pads.
Next was the SIngapore flyer, I saw this cute advertisement on the Singapore public transit.
The Flyer is a super large Ferris wheel located in the Marina Bay area.
It costs about 30 Singaporean dollars to go up, but if you pay more you can go in the fancy Moët & Chandon car - see below.
The view from the top was pretty awesome if you’re not afraid of heights. It took us about 30 minutes to make the full rotation top to bottom.
Afterwards, I insisted we go across this cool Helix Bridge that is apparently one of the first in bridge engineering and design in the world.
Singapore has really beautiful architecture. I could not stop gawking.
This kids were adorable, playing on and around the flower outside the Singapore Museum of Arts.
After, we walked around the whole harbour to see the Merlion. On our way there we saw a few people filming and Abbey went over to ask whether he was filming his proposal. They told us instead that they were filming a Singapore version of the “Happy” music video by Pharrell Williams, which is now an Oscar nominated hit. They asked us if we wanted to be in it and we obliged. My music video career is definitely kicking off during this Fulbright experience. It will be release on National Happiness Day - March 20th so stay tuned.
Lastly, we went to the Singapore Night Safari. It was by far one of my favorite things that we enjoyed on our vacation, well worth the wait and the cost of admission. Liz had been dying to see it ever since we decided we wanted to go to Singapore.
The Night Safari is unique because there are no dividers between you and the animals. It genuinely feels like a night safari. We also went to see the Night Safari Show. The show - unlike the safe, caged, distanced show it might be in the States - was very up close and personal. There were animals in the aisles, hanging overhead. There were audience members with boa-constrictors around their necks. Despite being part of an act, the animals were extremely well cared for. The precautions and protections for both the audience and the animals was significant. The zoo has a really strong educational component, with a persistent emphasis on protection and awareness. The Singapore Zoo is known as one of the world best, and they certainly deserves that recognition.
Our last few days in Hong Kong we were blessed with beautiful weather and mild temperatures. We grabbed breakfast in the morning at a more traditional place that offered various soups and types of congee as the main items. After, we headed out towards the harbour. Our first order of business was finding a Starbucks, which we found within one of the hidden malls connected to the metro. This mall had interactive maps that showed you with detailed instructions how to get any place in the building.
We reached our next destination a little after 10:30am. Because there were five of us, we tried to take turns choosing our destinations. The Hong Kong Maritime Museum was one of the places of my choosing, as was most of Day 4! Because Hong Kong is a port city, the Maritime Museum explains history of the development of Hong Kong as a whole. The Maritime Museum starts with the very early history of the harbour dating back to the pre-colonial period, around the Qin Dynasty and gradually explains the development of ship-building and trade development. “Junk Sail” ships are the boats that perhaps, Hong Kong is best known for. Their antique coloring, wooden hull, double masts are widely recognized and reminiscent of a very specific time in Hong Kong’s history. The museum goes into depths about the development of these ships, pirates, maritime law, colonization. It’s absolutely fascinating!
The area was first established as an trading center in the Tang Dynasty. It’s central location contributed to the ease of access between various parts of Southeast Asia. In 1699, the British East India Company made its first trip to China, thus beginning an important and sometimes tumultuous economic relationship between China and Great Britain.
In 1839, when the Qing Dynasty refused to import opium from the west the result was the violent Opium War between China and Great Britain. Hong Kong Island was occupied by the British military during the scuffle. Then on August 29th, 1842 the island was formally ceded to Great Britain under the Treaty of Nanking. Although the initial population of Hong Kong consisted mostly of fishermen and charcoal burners, the population grew over the years from immigrants from Mainland China due to the Taiping Rebellion, famine in China, and the Chinese Civil War and the Cultural Revolution.
Hong Kong was established as a free port, therefore it attracted businessmen and entrepreneurs from across the globe. Despite the mix of people, society remained highly segregated until the late 20th century, and the Chinese population had little to no government influence. The island remained under British control until 1997, with the exception of the period of Japanese invasion in 1941. In 1945, the Japanese promptly returned the island to British control.
In 1997, Great Britian’s “lease” on Hong Kong ended and the territory’s sovereignty was transferred to the PRC. In this agreement, however, it is stipulated that Hong Kong will be governed as a special administrative region. Therefore, it retains its laws and has a high degree of autonomy for at least 50 years beyond the transfer. What is really interesting is that Taiwan has a multi-party system, and the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, currently Leung Chun-ying, is chosen by an Election Committee of 400 to 1,200 members. This is a situation that will be in effect for the first 20 years of Chinese rule - thus 2017 will be an interesting perhaps crucial year for Hong Kong’s government and politics.
The picture below was taken from the window of the Maritime museum.
I caught Seth deep in thought, reading one of the exhibition descriptions.
Unfortunately we were running on a tight schedule, so we couldn’t stay in the museum nearly as long as I would have liked. We wanted to be sure that we could get Dim Sum - a morning/midday type of meal so we had to make it to our next destination before 2 or 3. We went to a restaurant recommended to us by a fellow Fulbright who visited Hong Kong previously. It was called Tim Ho Wan, and is apparently Hong Kong’s cheapest Michelin Star restaurants. I actually previously had idea what Michelin Star ratings were.
But I did some research. It is described by some to be a “mythically snobbish French guide” with “elitism and western bias”. It’s true, many of the starred restaurants are found in luxury hotels and cost you an arm and a leg. But Tim Ho Wan didn’t raise his prices after being awarded the Michelin Star, so now the common folk can also enjoy some world renowned dim sum.
Although the line was long, we waited the obligatory 30-40 minutes and sat down at a crowded table in the corner for 5. We got maybe 10 or so small plates each which only cost about 3-7USD each.
It was extremely delicious. We tried to eat a light breakfast and stave off hunger until this meal. It was well worth it.
After we hopped on the metro to get to the tram to ride to Victoria Peak - a must see in Hong Kong. The line was unbelievably long. We had to wait about an hour and a half, and we were very tired by the end of it. But we finally went up in the tram!
Of course the tram is largely for tourists, but it also still stops at several places on the way up so some local residents still use it to commute as well.
From the top you could see this breath-taking view of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers. We arrived just at sunset so the sight was awesome. These girls near the balcony of course were too busy playing on their respective i-pads to take note.
The sunset over the west side of the island and a pond that looked like Taiwan to me.
The picturesque plaza from above.
Hong Kong by night.
On top of Victoria Peak they give you headsets that tell you all about the buildings around you - which made the view even more meaningful. I really love learning about the history of the architectural development. For instance, the HSBC building was built with considerable Feng shui consulting and has two very famous lion statues in front of it. One is named Steven and the other Stitt after two prominent men in the HSBC executive leadership. They were moved during the Japanese occupation to be melted down for scrap metal however a American soldier saw and recognized them in Osaka, saving them from their fate. They were returned shortly after. Since then they have become a prominent symbol of HSBC. Again, I wish I could have stayed and listened to all of the descriptions but the wind was pretty fierce up on the top and the sunset too fast to make out the buildings clearly.
We also sent ourselves post cards from the peak. The peak company saves them and will send them to you on your chosen day. We all wrote post cards to each other to be received in January 21st-ish 2015. We felt it would be a good way to commemorate what was starting out to be a fantastic vacation adventure. We decided we would get dinner at the bottom of the peak, so then we had to wait an additional hour to get back down on the tram. We were all super cold so we ended up huddling together and singing songs in English, much to the amusement and displeasure of the other tourists around us.
Five days with this crew isn’t so bad.
Here is a photo of the tiny apartment we stayed in! The photo was taken from the other corner of the room.
Day 5: We visited Hong Kong Park to see what the guide books described as a natural escape in the midst of the bustling city. With the Victoria Peak on one side, and the skyscrapers on the other, the views from the park are really beautiful.
In the park is a small aviary which allows the common birdwatcher to observe, identify and learn about various types of birds. I caught these two love birds bringing some food to their babies in the hidden nest.
There is also a tea museum! Which was super interactive as all Hong Kong museums tended to be. We got to vote on our favorite tea types, and learn about the history of tea. There was also a cool pottery exhibit on the top floor of various teapots which had won awards. It made me desperately want to get back on the wheel.
Who knew that tea could fill an entire museum!
Afterwards, we went to the “Women’s Market” which was essentially an outdoor market that sold fake goods. Cellphone covers, handbags, dresses and even sex toys were for sale. The vendors here were amiable and willing to bargain. They were not nearly as aggressive as their counterparts in nearby Shenzhen, however the quality seemed about the same if not better. I always enter these markets telling myself that I don’t really need anything, and still always end up walking out with several bags of new knickknacks. My cassette tape cell-phone case however, I definitely needed. It wraps my well-worn, cracked, sparkly I-phone 4 very nicely.
Our last destination was the Hong Kong Jockey Club Happy Valley Racecourse. The fee was pretty inexpensive - which Liz pointed out was probably because they make most of their money from booze and betting. We did not, as you might be curious, place any bets. We were running out of Hong Kong dollars and my luck just isn’t that good, neither is my knowledge of horse racing. Sea Biscuit…yup my knowledge pretty much ends there. So we grabbed a the race info pamphlet, a beer and took turns making pretend bets with each other. The people at the racecourse were really diverse too! It was interesting to see what the people of Hong Kong do for fun, or unwind on a Wednesday night. There were some breakdancers and an MC who switched languages so fast it was hard to keep up. The crowd was buzzing and the air felt lively. The race track and event itself were testaments to the overwhelming influence the British had on Hong Kong. I can’t help but compare Hong Kong to Taiwan and to Mainland. HK despite now being part of China now is far more westernized than Taiwan and definitely more international than Taipei. People tend to group the three places all together as indistinguishable; Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei, Beijing. Western eyes sometimes have difficulty focusing. But I see them all as incredibly different places with scents, feelings and people that are entirely independent of own another.
Liz, Debbie, Abbey, Seth and I, bound for Hong Kong, set out from the Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei on the 17th.
We braved the flight and then bought a 3 day metro pass with Airport Express ticket included! It was a pretty good deal!
Instead of staying in a hostel or hotel we found a decent room with AirBnB with a host on the peninsula near the Sheung Wan Metro. The first thing we observed about Hong Kong is how fast paced it is - even the escalators are fast, and after coming from our tropical, southern city we’re not quite used to hustle and bustle of a big city.
Our first night we tried to research somewhere fun to go out - it was Saturday after all. We found a few bars online and then headed out. We quickly discovered that Hong Kong is a very mysterious and layered city. It is easy to assume that tall buildings are markers of centrality or importance, however this logic applied to Hong Kong is broken. All the buildings are tall, modern and futuristic. Ground space is limited with Victoria peak on one side and the ocean on the other, so commercial space moves both upwards and downwards. Skywalks are common, and so are underground malls. The below the ground network at the Central Station is a labyrinth of stores, restaurants and walking space which gradually runs into a mall or two. With the crowds at rush hour it can be dizzying, and it becomes easy to get lost among the sea of people all urgently heading to some unknown destination.
Needless to say we got lost multiple times, and gradually found our way to Wellington Street. We wandered hopelessly for a bit until we were exhausted enough to find BlackBrd a decent rooftop bar with lovely appetizers to kick off our stay in Hong Kong. We tried to find the XXX gallery, which is supposed to be a venue for live music, but it is actually called the “Sofa Bar” or something similar now. We were told when we walked in that it was BYOB but we were welcome to choose from one of the many well-worn sofas in the basement hipster-esque venue. A little tired from our day of travel and wary of the sofa stains we headed back to our apartment for the night.
The next day we headed toward the Kowloon peninsula. Our first stop was Chungking Mansions. Needless to say, it is not really a mansion in the truest sense of the word. This place came recommended to us by a Fulbright friend. Hong Kong is known for it’s ritzy five star hotels, and name brand stores. But rarely do you get to see the “other” side of Taiwan. Described as a “sleepless citadel”, the complex is a series of five towers each 17 stories. Inside are not only homes, hotels, and offices, but also restaurants and vendors of all kinds. Apparently you can buy everything there, however I don’t think we saw it in its full glory. According to a Time article, 20% of the mobile phones used in sub-Saharan Africa have passed through these doors, although I hardly believe it. The mansions are also known for petty crime, so feeling a little unsettled we headed out quickly.
Next we walked down the Avenue of the stars.
This is kind of like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but for Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kongese stars. We didn’t know too many but with the stars that we did know we were sure to take a picture; Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Tony Leung, Gong Li, etc.
We took some pretty goofy pics here.
Afterwards, we went to the Space Museum. Although the Space Museum is clearly older, it was still really interactive and well maintained. I have to hand it to Hong Kong, they certainly know how to museums right.
We took a brief pause from our museum touring to grab a quick bite to eat. We felt it was apropos to have afternoon tea while we were in Hong Kong so we stopped at nice looking hotel cafe. Coincidentally it was actually the local YMCA, which was extremely swanky. We ordered two of the afternoon tea sets.
Following lunch, we walked back toward the museums and explored the Fine Art Museum. The most interesting exhibits were about calligraphy - Wan Qingli’s The “Bonds of Memory” exhibit told about one man’s story of survival and art during the Cultural Revolution. We also enjoyed the contemporary art. Seth and I got tired around sunset and took a break to watch the lights turning on as the sun disappeared behind some of Hong Kong’s many skyscrapers.
After sunset, we planned to stick around the boardwalk until the beginning of the light show, a little after 7. We found the dock for the river cruise down toward the west side of the peninsula. We were lucky enough to just catch it as it was pulling up. The night light show is one of HK’s main attractions. Although, it’s died down from previous years, HK’s skyline by night is still an incredibly awe-inspiring sight.
What’s really astounding is that the tourism department coordinates 40 different buildings to participate. It is the 'World's Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show' according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
The next day we had a full schedule, starting out for the big Buddha on a neighboring island. We had to take a gondola again - a form a transport we are now well familiar with as well.
Abbey got pretty cozy with the couple next to her. She photo-bombed the professionally shot photo that the Gondola company took and then bought it in keychain form for the irony.
The Tian Tan Buddha, also known as the Big Buddha, is exactly what you think it would be, a large bronze statue of a Buddha. It is located on Lantau Island, and according to Wikipedia, symbolizes the harmonious relationship between man and nature and people and religion. In my opinion, the Big Buddha at Fo Guang Shan’s Buddha Memorial Center may be bigger…So we visited the slightly smaller Big Buddha.
Still the site was gorgeous.
We enjoyed a vegetarian set meal, which was delicious and made me really happy!
Then finally we headed back on the gondola with a day well spent.
A little more about Hong Kong:
You might be challenged to find a place with a history as interesting as Hong Kong. Currently, it is one of two Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China. Therefore, entering H.K. and leaving Taiwan from the perspective of “Immigration and Border Control” was a very interesting process. We as ETAs have an Alien Resident Card (ARC), which permits us to stay in Taiwan for a year and come and go as we please. The P.R.C., of course, lays claim to the R.O.C. and refuses to recognize its independence. Stamping our passport upon entering H.K. would be acknowledging the separateness of the two places - which would legitimize Taiwan’s claim to independence. So we did not get a stamp in our passport for traveling to H.K., we only got a small piece of paper documenting our visit.
As mentioned before, Hong Kong is more than crowded. It is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Although, it is about 93% Han Chinese, its population appeared to us to be pretty diverse and international. The official languages are Cantonese and English, although a large portion speaks Mandarin as well - so between the three we were able to get around with relative ease.
More about the history in my next post!
My vacation adventure began in Taipei for the Fulbright Midyear Conference. I’ve much to share and much to catch up on so I’ll try to be brief. We headed up Taipei early on Wednesday the 15th to see the Yingge Ceramic District in New Taipei city. The Ceramic Museum there is unique and beautiful - if you
like museums and/or ceramics I recommend checking it out.
There was an awesome exhibit by Johnson Tsang called living clay which morphed realistic faces and expressions with surreal ideas, shapes and forms.
Seth and I had a lot of fun goofing around.
But we were serious too!
After a quick tour of the museum and the gift shop, we hopped back on the bus to SanXia to our hotsprings resort in New Taipei, Grass Roots Resort.
The conference itself was really interesting. Listening to PhD candidates talk about their research of choice for 3 days straight has the very strong potential to be extremely dull, however I wasn’t bored for a moment. It felt refreshing to listen to and try to comprehend some high level intellectual topics. After talking to 4th graders in slow English all day, I forget that certain parts of my brain still work.
Topics ranged from the Military Law in the late Qing Dynasty to cancer antibody research. Much of it was over my head, but it was still fascinating to listen to. At the end of each session, the ETAs from each city, Kaohsiung, Yilan, Taizhong and Kinmen, had a brief opportunity to share three or so components of our lives here in Taiwan.
Ours in Kaohsiung was divided into Teaching, Living and Culture. To see our prezi checkout this link. For us ETAs it was also interesting to see each other present to get a handle on what the similarities and differences are between each site.
You can watch our “Culture” presentation here.
It wasn’t all work and no play. We had plenty of time to go in the hot springs and enjoy the quiet mountain trails beside the hotel. There were some awesome trails that had the “Rainbow bridge” shown below.
And some hammocks to relax in.
We took plenty of group photos.
And did some calligraphy with a master who gave us a cool demonstration. I promise I enjoyed it despite my face…
We made some spring couplets for Chinese New Year!
We stayed in New Taipei until the 17th - after all the presentations were done we had lunch at a restaurant where the plates and glasses were almost too beautiful to eat off. Then we had a large amount of time to peruse the Yingge old ceramic street before heading back to Taipei.
Today, January 15th, I came to Taiwan 168 days ago, and will be returning home in approximately 167 days and some change. I have crossed the half way point and entered into the stage of being abroad where people typically start counting down the days, and identifying places, incidents, events as “finite” or “the last”.
I’ve done my very best to avoid treating this experience like a vacation, or study-abroad. If I did that, I would miss investing in the people, the place and the language. In order to absorb, observe and experience everything that Taiwan has to offer, I have to trick myself. I have to treat life here as “real life” while simultaneously taking advantage of traveling and adventuring. Finding the balance between the two is sometimes difficult, but after 5 and half months, I feel I know a great deal about Taiwan both the beaten path and otherwise.
Although it was difficult to spend the holidays away from home, I also feel well adapted/adjusted to life in Taiwan. The traffic patterns are familiar, exchanges at cash registers and tea shops are now navigate-able , and I’m a regular at more than one local eatery. I frequent 7-Eleven and collect the stickers for cutesy gimmicky knickknacks that I don’t need. I even feel personally wronged if I am not able to find one by walking around the block or down the street. I’ve stopped missing home or feeling like I’m missing out and started to identify bits of home in my every day life here.
Two weeks ago we made the schlep to Taipei again, taking one of the first morning trains down at 7:30am to meet up with the rest of the group. We met in Tamsui, the last stop on the red line, known for its boardwalk and excellent seafood. If you remember, I went to Tamsui previously and took a boat to Bali and visited Hobe Fort. This time the program took us to see some other attractions!
First, we had a brief tour of Fort Santo Domingo. The first thing one notices upon arrival is the many flags waving rapidly in the blustery winter seaside breeze. The Fort almost seems more like the United Nations than an old military building. The tour guide quickly began explaining the significance and order of each of the flags lined up outside.
She pointed to the first one, and began. The Spanish built the Fort in 1628, shortly after in 1636, a group of local people, rebelling against the heavy Spanish taxes, attacked the fort and demolished it. In 1637, the Spanish rebuilt the fort and occupied it until1642 when the Dutch invaded the island and expelled the Spaniards. The Dutch built a new fort on the site – the structure that is still standing today.
Because in the 17th century, the local people had never seen Caucasian people before, they found the Caucasian complexion and hair color very strange. They thought the Dutch hair color appeared light and reddish compared to their more familiar dark locks, so they called the Dutch “the red haired people”. This lead to the fort becoming known as “Hongmao” Fort literally meaning “fort of the red-haired”. From 1683 to 1867 the Qing Dynasty gained control over the Fort adding extra security and gates around the structure. After the Second Opium War the British took over the fort, made it their consulate. The British decided to paint it to match its namesake, and since then it has maintained its red color. The fort also housed some interesting historic personas in addition to being representative of various periods of colonization. The linguist Herbert Allen Giles (of the Wade-Giles system) resided in the fort from 1885 to 1888.
The Republic of China (ROC) finally retrieved the land from the British in 1980. It is currently classified as an important historical site and hosts a museum. The interior has been recreated from photographs, while the basement, which was used as a prison, has various statues and some photographs.
After our educational visit, we then enjoyed fancy bian dang (便當) – or lunch boxes at one of Damsui’s famous universities; Tamkang University, 淡江大學. It is one of the best private universities in Taiwan. My co-teacher, Charlene, and many of the Fulbright staff are also graduates of this university. We listened to a brief introduction of the university – from which I learned the following.
Tamkang University enjoys widespread recognition as Taiwan’s oldest private institution of higher learning and one of its most distinguished.
It is ranked 9th by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education and in the top 50 universities in Asia.
It has over 28,000 students of fifty nationalities form the diverse student body of the school.
The school promotes itself as an international university, encouraging international exchange programs and Junior year abroad programs
We also heard a brief talk about Taiwan Cross Strait relations from Alexander Chun-chieh Huang, a foreign relations professor and Taiwan cross strait expert, followed by a very quick walking tour of campus.
The whole purpose of this month’s trip to Taipei was AIT’s (American Institute of Taiwan) Thanksgiving dinner. For a while, during the government shut down, we were uncertain whether or not the event would be canceled. Luckily, it was not! And the government is back up and running! AIT invited us to Taipei as special guests along with other diplomatic representatives. And it was wonderful! There was not only pumpkin pie but also multiple turkeys! We ate our fill of American style food and wine, and then headed home full to the brim. I almost took one of the imported pumpkins with me, but decided against it because the weight was way too much to carry on the metro. But I made a few good attempts.
The next day we took the train to Maokong in the Southeastern side of the city. Maokong is similarly one of the last stops on the metro, but this time the brown line – I am trying my best to familiarize myself with the Taipei metro lines.
Maokong (貓空), literally meaning “cat space”, is a beautiful mountainous rural area of Taipei. Our Taipei metro cards can also be used on the “gondola” or sky-taxi up the mountain. There were two types of cars we could choose from – the regular and the “crystal” cabin. We chose the crystal cabin with the clear floors so we could see everything down below. It was a little scarier with the see-through floor, but the ride was definitely worth the 50 TWD, even on a cold cloudy day. The area used to be the biggest tea growing area, and as we floated up the mountain we could see many tea farms in between winding roads and forest areas. At the top of the mountain, the end of the gondola ride, you can explore what can only be described as a “tea-village”- countless teashops and street vendors line the small roads nestled in the mountainside. There are small teashops, big teashops, expensive and cheap - any kind and atmosphere you could want. The area feels as if it’s from a dream. It was a little foggy, but you could still make out Taipei 101, and beautiful sights of the city down below. It has to be one of my favorite parts of Taipei so far.
We searched for a teashop for a while – determined to find the perfect one. After walking for a bit we found one farther down the road and off the beaten path. This teashop made tea ice cream, mochi and cheesecake as well – so we stopped for a mid-afternoon snack. The hostess there explained to us that the name “Maokong” comes from “jiâu-khang” (皺空, also similar 皺孔) in Taiwanese which means “crease aperture” and refers to potholes (there are many in the mountain roads). During the Japanese colonization, it was changed to the similar sounding Maokong.
The rest of the weekend past quickly – we went to a jazz bar that night and visited the Ximending area to see the outside beer garden, meeting up with some friends on the way. The next day Seth and I visited Eslite – a famous 24-hour bookstore in Taiwan. We both fell in love. We wandered around for hours and both ended up purchasing some bilingual books. I bought “小屁孩日记”(The Diary of a Wimpy Kid) with the hope that I will be able to understand most of it and maybe share it with some of my students.
Then we hopped back on the HSR to Kaohsiung – a trip that we are quite familiar with by now.
Every time I visit Taipei I feel like I uncover a new side of the city.