My first study abroad experience at Dartmouth College was in Taipei, back in the summer of 1988. I remember the excitement of flying over there from Boston via Tokyo, and embarking on what would turn out to be a nine-month-long life-changing journey. It is therefore fitting that my last recruiting trip of this year was to Taiwan.
My six-month sojourn in Taiwan and subsequent trips to Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Thailand in the years 1988-9 constituted the most significant learning journey of my life, especially since I went on to take a life-long interest in living, working, and studying the cultures, societies, and histories in this part of the world. I would say that the trip I just completed, which took me to nine countries or regions in Asia some of which I’d never been to before, has been equally transformative in its own way, and it may end up shaping the rest of my career and life in new and unexpected ways. So in this respect, ending that journey in Taiwan means that I have come full circle, and what better time to do so than in the Year of the Rooster, my sign (or as the Chinese say, my 本命年 benmingnian).
As a background to this entry, let me explain that I lived in Taiwan twice. The first time as mentioned above was in the summer and fall of 1988, when I was studying Chinese language in the intensive summer program in the IUP program at National Taiwan University (台大 taida) in Taipei. Afterwards, upon the recommendation of some classmates, I remained in Taipei, taught English at a 補習班 Buxiban (a night school for children or adults), read a lot of literature, poetry, and history, and made friends with Taiwanese people. I found that rather easy to do, especially after getting two years of Chinese language under my belt and being able to converse with people if only in simple terms. Most of my friends were people who were in my English classes, and they treated me like a king, taking me out to movies, bowling, dancing, and other activities they were into at the time. These were young men and women in their 20s mostly and I think they were happy to be friends with an American, however young I might have been at the time (18 is the answer). It was a great experience and since then I’ve always had a very positive impression of the people of Taiwan.
The second time I lived in Taiwan was in the academic year 1993-4, when I returned to the IUP Program, also known as the Stanford Center, for another year of Chinese language studies. This time I had a few years of experience speaking Chinese. After a short time in the program, I was able to converse much more fluently than ever before, and once again I was able to befriend all sorts of people in different walks of life. (There are many stories to tell of my year in Taipei, but I will save that for another entry.)
Yet even though I thoroughly enjoyed the company of folks from Taiwan, I found the city of Taipei to be a very unpleasant place for a number of reasons. Mainly it was the pollution. Taipei lies in a basin surrounded by mountains, and in the summer it’s like being in a bowl of hot soup. Add the terrible air pollution and you have quite a concoction. My memories of that period are of rivers of smog coursing down the main arteries of the city. I also recall the horrendous traffic, with traffic jams such a normal occurrence that it was often quicker to walk from one sector of town to another. After trying out a motorcycle, I decided on the somewhat safer and certainly healthier option of a bicycle, which was the best way of all to get round town back in those days. I used to live in Muzha 木柵, a section of town somewhat east of the campus of Taiwan U, and I would cycle back and forth every day through a horribly polluted tunnel through which coursed all manner of road traffic. Of course there were many wonderful features of the urban landscape, such as the temples and night markets, but I left the city in summer 1994 without the intention of returning there any time soon.
After that year, I spent two more years in grad school at Columbia, then went to China on an ACLS scholarship to conduct research for my doctoral dissertation, which was shaping up to be a history of the jazz age in Shanghai. Long story short, I have spent much of the past twenty years living in Shanghai.
It was only a few years ago that a direct flight opened up between Shanghai and Taipei. I did not have a chance to take that flight until fall 2015, when I went to Taipei to give a talk at the Academia Sinica and also to attend my friend colleague Toby Lincoln’s wedding. I stayed in Taipei for three days and was very impressed with the changes to that city. The air was far better than I remembered from over 20 years ago, and the subway system made it much easier to get around town, while also greatly improving the traffic situation.
People still went around town on motorcycles, and impressively, they all wore helmets (something you don’t see as frequently here in China, though most are on electric bikes, not gas-powered ones). But somehow everything seemed clearer and better organized than before. Still, the old charms of the city, such as the temples and local shrines pumping incense into the air, and the markets and food stalls were still ubiquitous. Of course, one of the great treasures of Taipei is the National Palace Museum, and I did get a chance to visit it one afternoon. But mostly I was caught up in the whirl of activities surrounding my friend Toby’s wedding.
So, I looked forward with great eagerness to returning to Taipei to conduct the final stage of my Asia recruiting tour for DKU. On Sunday Sept 24, I flew from Shanghai to Taoyuan airport, and headed straight to the smaller town of Hsinchu 新竹 just south of Taipei. I must have visited this town back in ’93-4, but didn’t remember much about it. It turned out to be a small yet charming city with a very active center, lined with canals and neon signage, which reminded me a lot of the city of Kunshan where I now live and work. Upon my arrival, I walked from my hotel into the middle of the city, following the canals and main roads, until I reached the neighborhood of the City God Temple 城隍廟.
Before reaching that site, I passed by a temple called Dong Ning Gong 東寧宮, and took a quick look inside, capturing some photos of the idols and decorations and the folks at prayer. I’d forgotten about the practice of throwing curved tiles on the ground to tell one’s fortune, which is prevalent in Taiwan. That clack and clatter brought back some old memories, as did the incense wafting about the temple grounds and mixing in with the faint smell of raw sewage from open sewers, which for better or worse I had long since come to associate with Taiwan.
The City God Temple was alive with activity, with hundreds of local folks young and old milling about the grounds. Inside what proved to be a rather intricate, multi-roomed temple, people were lighting incense and praying to the temple god and other deities, while just outside the temple people were lining up at food stalls to taste the local treats, which included steamed pork dumplings, oyster omelets, and many other tasty snacks.
It was fun to hear the sounds of local dialects being spoken once again, including of course Taiwanese but also Hakka (Hsinchu has a large Hakka population). I had learned some Taiwanese at the Stanford Center back in 1993 and had forgotten most of it, but knew enough to distinguish it at once. Following my visit to pay homage to the City God, I strolled around the surrounding neighborhood and passed through multiple alleyways filled with quaint little cafes and restaurants. A local band was setting up across the canal. I did not stop to listen to the band but heading on back to the hotel to prepare for the next day’s meetings.
After my school meetings the next day, I headed by taxi to the HSR, or High Speed Rail, which runs north-south for almost the entire extent of the island. This was not around back in 1993, so back in those days one had to take a bus or hitch hike or catch a ride with a friend to get around the island. The HSR was easy to use and before I knew it I was in Taichung 台中. I do remember visiting Donghai University 東海大學 in Taichung back in 1988, when some of my classmates from Dartmouth were studying there, but otherwise I don’t remember much about this town, only that it seemed quite small and rundown compared to Taipei.
This time, I discovered that Taichung had grown into quite a remarkable city. Keeping up the practice of visiting local temples, I headed over to the Nan Tian Gong 南天宮 an eclectic temple on the eastern side of town, and then walked around the city for a while (I seem to be averaging around 10K/day on each of these city visits) until I decided to take a cab over to the Feng Chia Market 逢甲夜市, touted as the grandest night market in the city. It did not disappoint.
Located outside the gates of a local university, the Feng Chia Market consisted of dozens of alleyways, including a principal one running for quite a distance, filled with stalls selling all kinds of food as well as clothing, bags, and other accoutrements for the urban youths.
It was much cleaner and brighter than I remembered night markets to be back in the days of my own youth, and it reminded me a lot of the night markets surrounding the universities in Seoul Korea, including the kinds of food you can get—mostly fried foods with a strong Japanese and Korean influence to them. In a moment of pure nostalgia, I ordered a papaya milk from one of the stalls. This is what I used to drink back in 1988 when I frequented the night market across from the NTU campus in Taipei.
My next visit was to Kaohsiung, which basically took the same pattern as before: a day of school visits followed by a night of temple and market-hopping. However, this time I had the advantage of an old friend from Shanghai, Carl Thelin, guiding me around town. I knew Carl from the filmmaking scene in Shanghai, and he had moved over to Kaohsiung a few years back along with his wife, who is from that town. I don’t think I had ever been to Kaohsiung before, and was surprised to find a thriving city that was much larger than I’d imagined. Carl and I agreed to meet at a restaurant that operated by day as a car wash. We had a very Taiwanese meal, followed by a night of bar hopping in the neighborhood where I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of offerings. Our evening ended up at a craft beer bar run by a Taiwanese guy who turned out to be super friendly, and we ended up closing the bar with him that night.
The following day, after I wound up all my school meetings, I met Carl again, this time at the restaurant that he and his wife run out of their family home. It turns out that their restaurant is located just behind the school I was visiting that afternoon, the Kaohsiung American School, and also right near the HSR station and so things worked out well. First, Carl took me on a tour of his historical neighborhood, which features remnants of the city wall that once surrounded the town in its old days.
We walked over to Lotus Pond 蓮池, a famous scenic spot in the city which is surrounded by temples and features some very impressive pagodas and statuary accessible through walkways above the water. We visited basically all of the temples, except for the Confucius Temple which was closed by the time we reached it, and walked around the perimeter of the pond and back to Carl’s restaurant.
Carl and his wife Wendy run a restaurant out of her family home called Bark (in Chinese, 熱狗叫). It is a thoroughly charming place, with an open-air courtyard in the interior as well as other rooms they are currently fitting out as they build their customer base. While there were few customers there that night, I got to enjoy one of their hot dogs (I think it was the Mediterranean), from a locally-made sausage, which Carl told me he and a Canadian in town who makes sausages spent months prototyping until they got the blend just right. (It contains beef and truffles). He also poured me a martini, which made me sleep for much of the journey by rail back to Taipei.
The last leg of this final journey on my Asia recruiting tour was a three-day stay in Taipei, where I visited some of the best national and international schools on the island. I stayed at the Howard Plaza Hotel, which turned out to be a fine hotel in a perfect location in the middle of town. That afternoon I had a meeting with Julian Gagnon, an American from Florida and Texas, who coaches for the Asian Debate League, and he kindly wrote a blog about our meeting afterwards.
After our meeting at a quaint spot called the Orange Cafe, I walked over to the Shi Lin Night Market 士林夜市 which has a very fine temple to the ocean goddess, Mazu, which is a favorite of the Taiwanese people, given their seafaring nature.
After that, I headed back to the hotel. Later that night I ventured out to a live music pub called Revolver, hoping to catch a live band. It was a lively spot filled mainly with young, hip foreigners and Taiwanese, but that night the upstairs music room featured a DJ, and so I walked down the road into a neighborhood I knew very well back in my Taida days.
I was surprised and delighted to find that a bar on Heping Road called Roxy was still there, even in its original spot, and filled with vinyl albums as it had been in the old days. This used to be a favored hangout of all the students in the IUP program (at least those who liked bars). I had many fond memories of conversations and gatherings there and remember a few of the old DJs well. They always played an eclectic mix of rock and pop tunes from the ‘60s-‘80s, as well as jazz, and they had an amazing selection of albums. The place had been completely renovated and the upstairs balcony area was gone, and the neon graffiti of band names looked nothing like the original place, but you could tell this was the spot all right.
To confirm my suspicions, I spoke to the DJ, a young woman named Angela Hong, who gave me a brief rundown on the recent history of the establishment and confirmed that this was indeed the original Roxy bar. She also told me that it was closing down soon, and so I was extremely lucky to get one last glimpse of this haunt from my youthful days in Taipei. I had another drink while enjoying the old jazz tunes that Angela was playing, and headed back to the hotel but not before passing another Roxy down the road, this one called Roxy Rocker where the album collection will end up soon.
The next morning I was able to get in a temple visit before my last school meetings of the trip. I caught a cab over to the Dalongdong 大龍洞 area. On the way, I got into a conversation with the taxi driver, who turned out to know a great deal about the temple culture in Taiwan and gave me many insights, telling me what sorts of people frequented what kinds of temples and for what purposes and so on. He also took me on a brief impromptu tour of the neighborhood and showed me several local temples and shrines in the area.
I went there mainly to visit the Bao An Gong 保安宮, a UNESCO heritage site, housing the famous deity Bao Sheng Da Di 保生大帝. Apparently this was a real person from the Song dynasty who was known for his ability to cure diseases and ailments (a doctor in other words), and so the temple was full of elderly people, some hobbling on crutches and some in wheelchairs, praying for their health or the health of their loved ones. This is one of the more famous temples in Taiwan and it goes back to the Qing dynasty. It has been carefully restored and is one of the most magnificent temples I’ve seen, not for its grandiosity but for the the subtle and careful details in its design and decor. Heading into the main temple ground and passing the main hall, I was informed by one of the temple caretakers that I really ought to walk behind the temple to another building where I could take the elevator up to the fourth story to see the entire temple from above. This floor also had shrines for worshipping, and the view overlooking the temple was magnificent.
After touring the Bao An Gong, I walked across the road to the Confucius Temple, and picked up a few things for my daughters to encourage them in their studies. The temple was full of children being escorted by parents and grandparents, as well as a handful of foreign tourists.
Though I was sweating profusely in the sticky heat of Taipei, I went on to the local neighborhood and visited a few more shrines before heading over to the Taipei American School. My last visit of the day, and of this grand tour of Asia, was to the Jianguo High School, a boys school housed in a grand old colonial building from the late Qing period, when the Japanese occupied and ran the island.
That evening, my last night in town, I decided to celebrate the end of my journey with—what else—a visit to a local jazz club. Angela, the DJ at Roxy, had mentioned a few jazz clubs including Sappho, and since it was not far from my hotel, I decided to walk over there and check the place out. I arrived around 9:30 and the place, a small subterranean spot off of an alleyway, was quite empty except for a few foreigners and Taiwanese couples out on dates. Over the next half hour it filled up somewhat, but I noticed a lot of folks reaching the door and hesitating at the door price, then heading off for someplace else. It didn’t help that the musicians weren’t playing, and they seemed to be waiting for someone.
Turns out it was the pianist and bandleader of the trio, who was late. Eventually they started playing, a Taiwanese guitarist and drummer along with a European saxophonist who was standing in for the pianist. The saxophonist turned out to be quite good, although the band didn’t seem to gel well, probably because he was a stand-in. At the end of their first set, the pianist arrived and apologized to the audience. He then hit the keys and played with great agility, energy, and flair, though without too much subtlety (not his strong suit apparently). But they put on a good show and once the intended trio was in place, the band started to gel a lot better and I enjoyed hearing them explore their own original musical terrain.
But I wanted to taste a bit more of the nightlife that the city had to offer, and my friend Toby Lincoln had sent me a message that night saying I ought to visit another bar called R&D Cocktail Lab. Turns out that bar was just a few alleys away (or a 20 minute walk at most) and so I cocktailed it over there for a final nightcap. I missed it at first since there’s no sign—it seems to be set up in the style of an old speakeasy—but caught the foreigners hanging outside the door during my second sweep of the alley, and headed inside where the European bartenders poured me a fine old fashioned made out of rye. Young hipster men and women started crowding into the bar past midnight, but as I intended to take one last neighborhood tour in the morning before catching my flight, I bid adios to the barmen and headed back to the hotel for some shuteye.
The next morning I grabbed a cab to the famous old street known as Di Hua Road 迪化街. I intended to visit the City God Temple there, which was a bit underwhelming for a city the size of Taipei (Hsinchu’s City God Temple was far grander). After having a Taiwanese breakfast at a local food stall, I heard some noise and saw that a group of young performers was gathering outside one of the shops on the street. They started up with drumming and then a lion and dragon dance commenced. I captured it on video.
Obviously this dance was meant to bless the local shop, which turned out to be a rather famous bakery that dates back to 1895, the year the Japanese first colonized the island (they ruled it another 50 years before returning it to Chinese sovereignty after WWII). After the performance was over, I spoke briefly to the shop owner, Mr. Lee, who told me he was the fifth generation of a family that had owned it since then. The blessing was given by a troupe of local school kids who do this frequently judging from their skills. He said that later that day one of the vice mayors was coming to the street for a meeting and that this had to do with why they chose this day for the blessing. Afterwards I strolled down the road taking in the old buildings and shops and picking up more gifts to take back to Shanghai.
All in all, it was a marvelous trip to Taiwan and especially to Taipei, one that brought back a flood of memories and associations from my first few years studying Chinese there. Being able to connect to old haunts like the Roxy while enjoying the new nighttime cosmopolitanism of the city made me feel at home, while on the other hand I came out with a much greater appreciation of the depth and variety of religiosity and temple culture on the island. Everywhere I went, I had great conversations with folks I met during the journey, whether they be cab drivers, school counselors, old friends like Carl, or temple caretakers. It helped that I speak Mandarin, but I do think that the education level of the people in Taiwan is reflected in their public manners and friendliness towards foreigners (whether they are as friendly to their Mainland Chinese cousins is another question, but I did see quite a few tourists from China who seemed to be having a lovely time). As I ended up writing in a Facebook post at the end of my trip, if I weren’t based in Shanghai, and married to that city in more than one way, I might consider making Taipei my hometown in Asia once again, after nearly 25 years.