Sunday, 31 March 2013

A Walk in Hong Kong: From Wan Chai to Central

On Friday I had nothing special to do, so I decided to go to visit the Legislative Council. I went from Hang Hau to North Point, and then took the tram. But the tram was so slow, hot and crowded that I got off and went on foot. Then I realized how small Hong Kong Island actually is. I basically walked from North Point to Central, which seems a quite huge distance if you look at the map below, but it didn't take that long.   


You can download a clearer Hong Kong MTR map here

I will write a few small posts about the things one can see in Central District, because there are many interesting sites, most of which are from the colonial era. As a matter of fact, among the modern skyscrapers it is possible to find many old buildings. They are, truth be told, just a small part of what was once the "pre-economic miracle" Hong Kong. The boom of the 1970s, the influx of immigrants from mainland China and the lack of space made  it necessary to tear down a lot of old buildings. 

Hong Kong has been called one the most vertical cities in the world (if not the most vertical). Since space is probably the most precious thing in Hong Kong, streets are narrow and buildings huge. The sky is the only thing that this city has in abundance.

Hong Kong's 'verticality', though, makes it one of the most photograph-unfriendly places I've been to. It's really hard to capture these enormous landscapes from below. 




This street is so narrow that it is almost impossible to capture all the huge buildings

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall - Taipei Highlights

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
(source: AngMoKio)
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is one of Taipei's most famous and characteristic landmarks. The white structure with the blue roof may look like an edifice from old times, but in fact, it was built in 1980, five years after the death of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Guomindang and of the Republic of China from 1928 until 1975, which makes him one of the most important figures in Chinese history and longest-serving statesmen in the world.


Chiang's son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, ordered the construction of the the memorial hall to honour his father. The hall is 70 metres tall and was built in Ming palace style. It is surrounded by a large park and by entry gates, and its architecture is full of classical symbols and inscriptions. This makes it one of the best examples of the neoclassical style of the Chiang era. It cost around 25 million US dollars (Logan / Hsu, p. 132).

Chiang is a controversial figure both in mainland China and in Taiwan. In mainland China, because he lost the civil war to the Communists in 1949 and was declared a sort of state enemy in the PRC. In Taiwan, because Chiang relocated the government of the Republic of China to the island, and ruled with an iron fist. He gave the highest ranks and positions in the government as well as in the military to those mainland party cadres who had followed him to Taiwan after his defeat, virtually excluding the local Taiwanese population from any participation in political affairs. Moreover, Chiang felt that his power was constantly endangered, and feared both a Communist attack and a Communist infiltration in Taiwan. He inaugurated a period of repression known in Taiwan as the "white terror", and ruled under martial law, which was lifted by Chiang Ching-kuo only in 1987. In 2007 the Chen Shui-bian administration renamed the building into National Taiwan Democracy Hall, a decision reversed by the Guomindang administration in 2009.

Inside the hall there is a giant 25-ton statue of Chiang Kai-shek. The changing of the guard in the statue hall is one of the must-sees for tourists in Taipei.

Statue of Chiang Kai-shek (source: Lord Koxinga)


Inside the Memorial Hall there are exhibitions about the life of Chiang Ka-shek. These exhibitions tend to portray Chiang in a positive light, emphasizing his successes and downplaying his failures. One should not forget that the personality cult around Chiang was still practiced until the 1990s. Just to give you an idea, this is how the official website of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall introduces the history of the building: 

In April, 1975, the entire nation mourned the passing of President Chiang Kai-shek. In June, in response to suggestions from all sectors, the funeral committee members decided to build the CKS Memorial Hall in Taipei, in order to commemorate the memory of our great leader.


This is obviously the typical, hagiographic language a personality cult requires.

No matter what one may think about Chiang Kai-shek as a political figure, the Memorial Hall has become one of the most important sites in Taipei, also thanks to the surrounding 250,000 square metre compound that includes a park and two well-known buildings, the National Theatre and the National Concert Hall, which are important centres for theatrical and musical performances. 

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall was also the stage of one of the most important events in recent Taiwanese history. In March 1990, students gathered in the square in front of the Memorial Hall to demand democratic reforms. The protests happened only a few months after those in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, by which the students in Taipei were inspired. But other than in Beijing, in Taipei there was no suppression of the movement. Then President of the Republic of China Lee Teng-hui rather seized the opportunity to win over the hardliner within the Guomindang and continued the process of democratization (Chu / Wong 2010, p. 51; Wright 2001, pp. 95-128). In memory of the pro-democracy movement in 2007 the square has been renamed Liberty Square (formerly Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square).

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is open from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Entrance is free. It can be easily reached by undergroud (Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Station of the blue line). 




Friday, 29 March 2013

Hong Kong's Struggle For Universal Suffrage

As the South China Morning Post reported today, Qiao Xiaoyang (喬曉陽), chairman of the Law Committee under the National People's Congress, said that discussions about a possible electoral reform in Hong Kong, which could lead to the establishment of a fully elected government, should not begin until the people of Hong Kong agree that those who confront the Beijing government cannot and shall not be allowed to govern the city (the Chinese text of Qiao Xiaoyang's speech can be found on the website of the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong S.A.R.).

Pro-democracy forces within Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), are pushing for a reform of the electoral system before the coming chief executive elections in 2017.

According to Qiao Xiaoyang, Beijing would be willing to begin consultations over the election reforms only if two prerequisites were fulfilled: first, the reforms would have to be in line with Hong Kong's Basic Law and "the relevant decision of the NPC Standing Committee"; second, those who confront the central government should not be eligible.

What Mr Qiao means by "confronting the central government" is not completely clear. In Mr Qiao's own wording, confrontation "does not refer to criticising Beijing. Criticism is allowed as long as it is for the good of the country." But the question is: who decides what is the good of the country? And what are the objective criteria to define it?

It can be assumed that the ambivalent choice of words veils a desire on Beijing's part to control Hong Kong and to not let democratic reforms turn the SAR into a Western-style parliamentary system. Although the central government has indeed respected the general lines of the "one country-two systems" principle, it seems determined to hold a firm grip on the civil society and group interests. Controlling Hong Kong would be much more difficult - if not altogether impossible - were Hong Kong to be ruled by a democratically elected parliament.

Meanwhile, an initiative launched by Dr Benny Tai Yiu-ting, professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, is alarming the pro-Beijing camp. The initiative, called "Occupy Central" will gather pro-democracy protesters in the centre of Hong Kong. Mr Tai has been quoted as saying he hopes that at least 10,000 people will take part in the demonstration. The protests will be conducted according to the principles of non-violence and civil disobedience. He said that all participants should be ready to accept imprisonment and retaliations, such as the loss of their professional qualifications, but that they "should not be worried about losing their lives."

Hong Kong's newspaper The Standard reported that organizers of the Occupy Central movement announced the launch of a website next week where people can sign up to demand universal suffrage. In May there will be a discussion to put forth concrete proposals for constitutional reforms.

The struggle of pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong should be understood against the backdrop of the history of the city both under British rule and after the handover to China in 1997. In one of my next posts I will briefly examine the evolution of Hong Kong's government and the relationship of the city with Britain and China.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Jimmy Lai Won't Sell Taiwan's Media Group

During the last few months, the announcement by Hong Kong media group mogul Jimmy Lai that he would sell his Taiwan branch had sparked great controversy. Jimmy Lai owns the Next Media Group, to which  newspapers such as Apple Daily belong. Apple Daily and its Taiwanese version are the most read newspapers in their respective areas of circulation.

The controversy stemmed from the fact that the consortium of buyers, who had offered to purchase the group for HK$4.16 billion, were headed by Chinatrust Charity Foundation chairman Jeffrey Koo Jr (辜仲諒), and Want Want China Times Group (旺旺中時集團) chairman Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明). The latter has often been criticized for using his media group for espousing and promoting pro-Beijing views (note).

The Taiwanese public was worried about the consequences of such a deal, which would have put Taiwan's most popular media in the hands of a consortium led by Tsai Eng-meng, who already owns media such as the China Times, thus creating a big media trust.

However, yesterday newspapers in Taiwan and Hong Kong reported that the deal failed (note). As The Standard reported today (28/3/2013), Jimmy Lai stated that he will never try to sell his Taiwan media outlets again. "[I]t would be unfair to the staff as well as the readers. Our creditability would be lost," he said. He added that his Taiwanese media outlets must become more profitable, earning as much as HK$340 million a year.

Jimmy Lai is a notorious 'troublemaker', at least from Beijing central government's point of view. Lai's life is an adventure in itself. Born into a poor family in Guangdong, he fled China as a thirteen-year old boy to seek his fortune in Hong Kong. There he set up a clothes retailer, Giordano, and became a garment tycoon. (Callick 1998, p. 94-95). In the early 1990s he founded the magazine Next, a sensationalist, colourful publication. The paper had enormous success, with a circulation of 400, 000 units, far ahead of the then market leader, the Oriental Daily. In June 1995, only two years before Hong Kong was handed over to the PRC, Lai launched Apple Daily (Mee Kau Nyaw, Li Si-Ming: Hong Kong Report. 1997, p. 488). 

His tabloids, which attract readers through their eye-catching graphic and sensationalist stories about sex, crime and political scandals, are not focused on rational political analyses; but their provocative headlines and scoops, as well as their anti-establishment attitude, require freedom and independence from the government. This is where Jimmy Lai's and the CCP's views clash. 

Lai has made himself a lot of enemies in Beijing for criticizing the Communist Party and for openly promoting the freedom of the press. When he first heard that Hong Kong would be handed back to China, he allegedly cried (Lai 2007, p. 121). In a famous article published in Next in 1994, he described then Premier Li Peng as a 'turtle's egg with a zero IQ' who is a shame to the Chinese people, and whose head should drop dead. This prompted a fierce reaction in Beijing. The retaliation came immediately, with his Giordano shops being shut down in mainland China, allegedly due to license issues. In August 1994, Lai stepped down from Giordano's Board (Fenby 2000, p. 134; Dixon / Newmann 1998, p. 48). The Taiwanese version of Next Magazine and Apple Daily were launched in 2001 and 2003 respectively, achieving the largest readership in their market segment (note).



Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The City of Darkness - Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong


Kowloon Walled City before its demolition in 1994
"The Walled City did have a strange status and a peculiar life of its own: it was not governed by law. As a result, it had become a haven for illegal immigrants, criminals and vice of every kind."
Jackie Pullinger











When one looks at the pictures of the Kowloon Walled City Park one can hardly imagine what was to be found in this very place less than two decades ago. Until the beginning of the 1990s some 40,000 residents lived within this 6.5-acre (0.026 km2) area, cramped in unhygienic, infested houses, built illegally by all sorts of people who, for whatever reason, chose to take refuge in that "city of darkness", as it was known in those days. 


View of Kowloon Walled City Park, built after the demolition of the Walled City 


An alley inside the Walled City. There were
no proper streets separating the buildings
Before being demolished in 1994, Kowloon Walled City was an enigmatic and appalling anomaly in this modern, wealthy metropolis. That compact mass of dilapidated, squalid houses stood in the middle of residential areas, like a mysterious, impenetrable fortress, governed by its own laws, dominated by criminal triads, inaccessible to outsiders.

For almost a hundred years, this small enclave inside the British colony was claimed by both China and Britain, but de facto neither country exercised jurisdiction over it.





History of Kowloon Walled City


Kowloon Walled City (with the walls still standing)
in the 1920s
The origin of Kowloon Walled City dates back to 9 June 1898, when Britain and China signed the second Convention of Peking, with which China leased to Britain what was going to be known as the New Territories, an area of 370 square miles comprising the peninsula south of the Shenzhen River and 230 islands (Tsang 2011, pp. 38-39). Britain wanted China to cede the territories in perpetuity, as it had been the case with Hong Kong Island and a small fraction of Kowloon peninsula in the past; but the Chinese, trying to avoid the worst, resisted, and consented only to a 99-year-lease, which the British accepted. Furthermore, the Chinese demanded to retain the administration of their Kowloon military garrison. 

The Kowloon garrison had been built in 1846-47 to counterbalance the military presence of the British, who had taken possession of Hong Kong Island in 1843. The emperor himself ordered the construction of fifteen-feet-thick stone walls, watchtowers and heavy gates (Ingham 2007, p. 191). There were 744 people living in the fort, 544 of whom were military personnel. There was also a yamen, a magistrate's office (Tsang 2011, p. 40).

Kowloon Walled City in 1898
The 1898 Convention said that "the Chinese officials now stationed there shall continue to exercise jurisdiction except so far as may be inconsistent with the military requirements for the defence of Hong Kong" (ibid.). The British first acquiesced to keep the Chinese military garrison in the very middle of their possession. But in 1899 they unilaterally expelled the Chinese and raised the Union Jack over the walls, and the Chinese military personnel abandoned the fortress. The Chinese state never accepted this breach of the Convention, and so, in order to avoid further controversies, the British colonial government refrained from administering it. 

For decades the Walled City was governed by no one, and over the years it became a lawless refuge for all sorts of people. In 1912, for example, a group of Manchu loyalists escaped from mainland China to the Walled City and continued to live according to the same old imperial traditions that the new Republican government had abolished after the 1911 Revolution (Wordie 2007, p. 226). 

In 1942 the Japanese demolished the walls that had been standing there ever since its construction. They used the material to extend the Kai Tak airport runway (Ingham 2007, p. 192). The airport, which was from 1925 to 1998 Hong Kong's main airport, was so close to the Walled City that planes flew above it, very close to the houses, all day long. 

A Safe Haven For Crime


Reconstruction of the Walled City before its demolition
After the Second World War the Walled City was occupied by an increasing number of illegal settlers. They began to build houses, mostly of between 9 and 10 storeys (Lung 1999, p 38). An old German documentary shows the life inside the Walled City. Tiny, dirty flats; no running water; electricity was illegally bugged from the surrounding buildings. The residents were not jobless. There were small factories, without windows, with old machines, where people worked 12 hours a day 7 days per week, producing extremely cheap goods that were sold to retailers in Hong Kong; even food, like noodles or fish, were processed in small factories, under terrible hygienic conditions - rats and cockroaches were common sight. The Walled City was an economic unit that gave its contribution of cheap labour to the economy of Hong Kong.

One of the many unlicensed dental clinics
at an edge of the Walled City
It may be surprising to us today, but some people really wanted to live in the Walled City because of cheap housing and the absence of laws and taxes. A 58-year-old Chinese herbalist who was evicted at the beginning of the 1990s stated that he and his family lived in a 290-square-foot (around 27-square-meter) flat where he also had a medical practice and even performed operations on patients. Without a license. He was happy about his life, because, as he said, he could earn $2,000 per month, pay no taxes and little rent (The New York Times International 16/ 6 / 1992). The Walled City housed "small bakeries, butcher shops, clothing, toy and noodle manufacturers, and medical and dental clinics" (ibid.).

Inside the Walled City, no one payed taxes, there was no police, and no safety and health regulations. Restaurants and factories operated in extreme high-risk conditions. Most families fetched water from common-use water pipes. Since there was no sewage system, people payed workers to collect the waste in their chamber pots every morning (ibid.).

Because of the sovereignty dispute between China and Britain, the Walled City was "a haven for those on the fringes of colonial society - poor Chinese immigrant families seeking cheap housing, mainland doctors and dentists who set up practices with no licenses, drug dealers and thieves fleeing the Royal Hong Kong Police" (ibid.). 

Drug addiction and prostitution were among the major social problems in the Walled City. Already in 1952 community services were started, mostly by Christian organizations, like the clinic set up by Reverend Lau Chi-sham. Eventually he also established a kindergarten, a school with lunch provided for the children, a youth centre and an activities centre for elder people (source: Walled City Park plaque).

The probably most famous social worker in the Walled City was Jackie Pullinger, a UK-born Christian missionary who came to Hong Kong in 1966. She helped many drug addicts, prostitutes and homeless people (there were also 'street sleepers' in the Walled City).

"It did not take me long to discover", wrote Jackie Pullinger, "who really ran [the Walled City] - the Triads" (Pullinger 1989, p. 21). They demanded protection money, monopolized the drug traffic.  

"Taking opium or heroin was commonplace in the Walled City. Even though drugs potentially made a Triad member unreliable or useless as a fighter, many in the gangs were hooked. They were often dealing in drugs anyway and it was a short step to trying some for themselves [...]. Once the drug took hold, it was just a matter of time before the addict lived only for the next fix, reduced to stealing and violence, blackmail and immoral earnings from women" (ibid., p. 29).

Prostitution, often involving underage girls, was another endemic problem in the Walled City.

"It upset me to see twelve- or thirteen-year-old prostitutes and to learn that these girls were not free, having been sold by parents or boyfriends. It troubled me to meet their minders - the aged mama-sans who sat on orange boxes in the streets luring the Walled City voyeurs with promises of 'she's very good, very young, very cheap' " (ibid., p. 14). 

Demolition and Construction of The Walled City Park


For decades the Walled City had been a thorn in the side of the British colonial administration. But because of the row with China, who saw the Walled City as part of her own territory, the British could not take action. Finally, after long negotiations, Deng Xiaoping agreed that it was in the best interest of both sides to tear it down - after all, Deng had already secured the handing back of Hong Kong to the mainland and the dispute over that small piece of land was not so vital any more. The British government began to relocate the residents of the Walled City, despite strong resistance on their part. In 1994, the Walled City was demolished and the site cleared to give way for a commemorative park. Soon after the debris were removed, the structure and some relics of the old Imperial fortress were discovered. Today's Walled City Park is a partial reconstruction of the old garrison, with several modern additions.

















A modern addition: the Zodiac Garden with statues of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs  


Nothing remains of the infamous Walled City. It is hard to imagine that instead of this nice park once stood one of the most densely populated, unsafe and anomalous places in the world. In the 1980s the Walled City had reached the status of a myth. Today, it is forgotten. Visiting the park today is like visiting an ancient Greek or Roman archaeological site; you must use your imagination to picture how the place might have looked like in the past. In some respect, it is sad to know that one will never be able to visit the Walled City as it was in the 1980s. On the other hand, its sanitary conditions were so critical that it would probably have been impossible for the Hong Kong government to simply keep it as it was, in order that future generations could go there and get a glimpse of how life had been in the 'city of darkness'.   

   

   
One of the relics found after the demolition of the Walled City




The Yamen (magistrate's office)

A cannon from the time when the Walled City was a military garrison. For almost a century, these cannons stood in the middle of the Walled City; people simply built their houses and alleys around them 







The so-called 'Pullinger Rock', in honour of Jackie Pullinger
Map of the Walled City Park
Street leading up to the entrance of the Walled City Park. The building opposite the park already existed before 1994, and I guess that some of the residents still remember the Walled City.

How to get to Kowloon Walled City Park: go to Lok Fu MTR station (green line), then go to Junction Road and down towards the park. It's only about ten minutes on foot.


View Larger Map




Sources:




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Sunday, 24 March 2013

History of Hong Kong (Part I)

Flag of British Hong Kong
(in use from 1959 to 1997)
Hong Kong is a unique place. It was Britain's first and only direct colonial possession in China; and it was the last big British colony, the last remnant of the Empire that ruled a quarter of mankind. Under British administration, Hong Kong rose to become one of the richest, most exciting, and densely populated cities in the world. 


Yet it has always been a thoroughly Chinese city, in which East and West met, but didn't merge into one single people, one single civilization.

When Commodore Sir Gordon Bremer of the Royal Navy took possession of Hong Kong in the morning of 26 Januray 1841, in a place that is now known as Possession Point, the island of Hong Kong had nothing in common with the vibrant metropolis that we see today.

Dismissed by Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston (1784 – 1865) as ‘a barren island with hardly a house upon it’, Hong Kong was nothing more than a remote outpost of the Chinese Empire, a small island, home to less than 8,000 fishermen and farmers. Today, it has over 7 million inhabitants, and a GDP of $351.119 billion.

Only this street name reminds
of the location where the British
arrived in 1841
To be honest, I didn't come to Hong Kong because of its history. In fact, I knew very little about it. I'd been here twice before, and my first impression was that of a multicultural world city. Hong Kong's 'Britishness', if it ever existed, seemed to me to have faded, except for a few last reminders that on this island once fluttered the Union Jack: street names, driving regulations, the preference for British spelling and accent.

After two weeks, the colonial past of Hong Kong became more visible. Buildings, old coins with the portrait of Queen Elizabeth, rituals, but, above all, a sense that Hong Kong as it is today is a product of one and a half centuries of British rule. On the other hand, it is astonishing how fully Chinese the population of Hong Kong is, despite having been administered by Britain for so long. 



As a matter of fact, the British and the Chinese did not mix. For most of its colonial rule, racial separation prevailed; at a time when racial prejudices were common in Britain, most expatriates did not seek to mingle with the 'natives' in their narrow, crowded streets, among hygienic conditions that Westerners considered intolerable, with a people they saw as inferior; they did not bother to learn their language and customs. Rather, they isolated themselves in their exclusive European residential areas, established their own exclusive clubs and associations, and never sought to become Chinese. The Chinese, for their part, lived mostly among themselves, following their own traditions and rules. In between, there was a class of educated Chinese and of Eurasians that lived somehow between those two worlds. But today, in a globalized world, what was then exceptional has become normal. You don't need British rule any more to speak English and being familiar with British culture. 
The clock tower is the last relic of the former Kowloon-
Canton railway station. The station went into
operation in 1911, and it was demolished in 1977


1930s Hong Kong
Ironically, the nature of British rule suited the mindset of the Chinese. Given its lack of resources and personnel, the colonial administration left their Chinese subjects alone, as long as they did not disrupt the order and didn't violate the laws of the British colony. The natives minded their own business, prospered financially, and the sentence that is as true today as it was back then, i.e. that the Chinese are not interested in politics, but in earning money, having a family and living a good life, explains why they didn't rebel against foreign rule, but accepted it as a safe framework that allowed them to make a living without the danger of war or disturbances. 

The British gave Hong Kong their imprimatur: the rule of law, a liberal economic system, freedom of speech. They gave Hong Kong's political system a touch of democracy, though basically maintaining a pure colonial administration, with a Governor and senior civil servants appointed by London, who had to govern a city where 95% of the population were Chinese, many of whom couldn't even speak the language of those who ruled them. When Chris Patten, the last Governor, came to Hong Kong in 1992, his wife tried to learn some smattering of Cantonese in an effort to come closer to the people; and Patten himself, who loved to tour around the city and meet his subjects, needed an interpreter to communicate with them. 


Modern skyscrapers in the centre of
Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s population grew from 301,000 in 1901 to 850,000 in 1931. When the Japanese occupied it in 1941, the population had increased to around 1,639,000. Most inhabitants were thus first generation immigrants, who had fled mainland China to seek refuge in the peace and stability of the British colony, escaping the poverty and the wars that marred their motherland. In 1937 the Japanese invaded China, which was liberated only in 1945. And then, the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists broke out. As a consequence of the instability on the mainland, millions of Chinese crossed the border to look for a more stable life in Hong Kong. 
In 1941, only 38.5 per cent of the Chinese population had lived there for more than 10 years and only 6.4 per cent for over 30 years (Tsang 2011, p. 109-110). In 1955, the influx of migrants would make the population swell to 2.5 million. 

Hong Kong was a city of migrants, ruled by a class of foreigners. Both categories didn't come to Hong Kong to settle down forever. Most Chinese wanted to go back to their ancestral home. And most foreigner would sooner or later leave. Hong Kong is a city with a fluid, a vague identity. A place that always changes, in which history is overshadowed by the present. "Many people in Hong Kong," said professor Wang Gungwu in the early 1990s, "would have little time to contemplate the past. They think Hong Kong is more a place for trade or for refuge or for good feng-shui; a place to make money rather than one in which to make history" (Wang Gungwu: Preface to Lectures on Hong Kong History by K.C. Fok, p. i).
Peninsula Hotel (1928)

In fact, if you walk around the city you may wonder where the history is. History has often enough been buried under skyscrapers; buildings have been torn down to give space for the new. In a city that lives in and for the present, the past had little or no importance. But it is perhaps this vagueness, the changing and undefined identity of this enigmatic city that makes up its fascination.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Top 6 Unusual Things in Taiwan

1) People Wearing Surgical Masks

If you go out wearing a surgical mask in Europe you'll probably see people staring at you in panic, wondering whether you want to spread a mortal disease by mingling with healthy people instead of putting yourself into quarantine. 

Don't worry, it's not that in Taiwan millions of people have serious diseases. It's just a habit to wear surgical masks, and no one will think you're weird and no one will look at you if you wear one.

I don't know if the habit of wearing masks comes from Japan, or if it is a consequence of the SARS panic from a few years ago, which led East Asian countries to care more about public health in their overcrowded cities. Actually, wearing masks is not a recent phenomenon; I remember reading a book written in the 1930s about Japan, in which the author described a group of Japanese soldiers' wives in occupied Manchuria wearing surgical masks.

Definitely, East Asian people seem very concerned about their health in crowded places. In Taipei's MRT stations, you will often hear the announcement that if you have symptoms of a cold you are kindly requested to wear a mask. 

Last year in February I caught a bad cold. Since I had already paid for a month's private classes in a Chinese school, I decided to attend my lessons anyway. But, following the Taiwanese habit, I bought a pair of surgical masks at a convenience store (yes, they are considered items of daily use), put one of them on and went to school. My teacher - though not happy about spending an hour in a tiny classroom with a coughing and sneezing student - said that she appreciated I was wearing a mask. "You are very polite," she added, "most Western students sneeze and cough all the time, but they won't put masks on." So, apparently, wearing a mask has three main purposes: 1) to protect yourself from diseases or pollution; 2) to avoid spreading your own disease; 3) to be polite by showing you care about other people's health.  

Oh, I had almost forgotten another option. During the first few days following a plastic surgery, some girls will wear masks in order not to show the spots on their skin. So, if you see a girl wearing a surgical mask, maybe she is sick, or maybe she just had plastic surgery to become more beautiful.

2) Hyper-clean Underground - Hyper-dirty Restaurants

Take the MRT in Taipei and you will time and again hear the following announcement: "Please do not smoke, eat, drink, chew gum or beetle nut in the Taipei Metro System. Thank you."

So, no matter how long your journey lasts, you simply can't drink. And if you woke up late and want to eat a sandwich while on the metro - forget about it. For Taiwanese, there seems to be nothing more barbarous than devouring a sandwich on the underground in front of other people, possibly making your seat or the floor dirty. The cleanliness of the MRT stations is one of the things Taiwanese are most proud of, and perhaps you might have heard the question: "What do you think of our MRT?"

But then comes the moment when you get out of the MRT and perhaps you want to go to a restaurant or to a night market. And here is when the inexplicable happens. While the MRT is as clean as a hotel lobby, night markets are dirty and stinky, and lots of street restaurants are dirty, have cables hanging from the ceiling, and even rests of food may lie on the floor. It is puzzling how people who value the cleanliness of their underground so much can, a moment after getting out of the station, be eating in so greasy places.  


3) Girls Holding Umbrellas in the Sun

Throughout East Asia white skin is considered beautiful. A girl's white skin is something she can be proud of. So while we Westerners go to the beach and lie for hours in the sun to get a cool tan - getting a cool tan is something many Asian girls are afraid of. That is why on hot sunny days many  Taiwanese girls (especially the pretty ones) will protect their beauty with an umbrella. Most of them perhaps would like to do the same when they travel to Europe, but we cast on them bewildered, intimidating glances, so they soon give up.

4) High-pitch Voices

One day I was sitting in a cafe' near Gongguan sipping my coffee, when two girls came in and sat next to me. One of them was wearing a blue top, an extremely tiny mini-skirt (a friend of mine once called this kind of skirts "jeans panties") and high-heel shoes. Besides, she was wearing heavy make-up with the typical fake eyelashes. Then, she opened her mouth and out came a voice like a 3-year-old girl's. 

Whether it was her natural voice or not (yet I doubt it was), it is not uncommon to hear grown-up girls faking a baby-voice (I am not saying ALL girls talk like that, just some of them). There are two reasons why high-pitch voice is so en vogue: 1) Taiwanese think it sounds polite; that is why shop clerks, even men, will talk to their customers in a high-pitch voice, no matter how irritating you may find it; 2) it is characteristic of the Taiwanese-style 'cuteness' which - please remember it - doesn't tell you anything about the real personality of a girl, because cuteness may be just manners.     

5) Taiwanese Drivers' Crazy Persona

When Taiwanese drive their car or ride their bike, a metamorphosis occurs. "I come first and everyone else is an obstacle", may be the way to summarize their attitude behind the wheel. What is true for cyclists (read my post about cyclists in Taipei) is also true for drivers. As a pedestrian, you should also remember that no car will stop before the zebra crossings to let you go first.


6) People Burning Money on the Street

If you walk on the streets of Taiwanese cities you will notice that from time to time people burn paper in some sort of big metal cans. This will mostly happen in front of shops and restaurants. These pieces of paper are "paper money". 

Burning paper money has been for centuries a common religious practice in Chinese culture. It was officially introduced to the imperial sacrifice already in 738 AD (Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien: Collected Writings on Chinese Cultural History, p. 99). 

Burning paper money is a way to ask for good business and for ... real money! On some days there are so many people burning paper money that whole streets are invaded by smoke and small pieces of papers flying in the air.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Danshui and Fort San Domingo - New Taipei City Highlights

Although I am in Hong Kong now, there are still a few places in Taiwan I would like to write about. One of them is Fort San Domingo in Danshui.

Danshui is a district in the Northeast part of New Taipei City. It used to be an urban township (淡水鎮; pinyin: Dànshuǐ Zhèn), until on 25 December 2010 the special municipality of New Taipei City was created (note). Practically, Danshui is still a sort of separate town, with around 130,000 inhabitants. 

History of Danshui


Before the Japanese took possession of Taiwan in 1895, Danshui was one of the cities most exposed to Western influence. There were two brief periods of colonial rule, first by the Spanish (1629-1641) and then by the Dutch (1641-1661) (note). Following the defeat of the Dutch, Taiwan was first ruled by the Cheng dynasty as a separate state, and then annexed to the Chinese Empire under the Qing dynasty, which in Taiwan lasted from 1684 to 1895 (see Davison 2003, chapters 2-4).

After the expulsion of the Dutch, Danshui was free from foreign influence, until the Treaty of Tientsin, signed in the mainland Chinese city of Tianjin (Tientsin) in June 1858, ending the first part of the Second Opium War (1856–1860), gave the British Empire, Russia, the United States and France special rights and protections in the port of Danshui (Crook 2011, p. 134). Among the Western merchants that came to Taiwan was John Dodd, who arrived in 1864 and started a prosperous tea business, helping establish the tea industry as one of the main economic resources of the island.

After the Japanese occupied Taiwan, Danshui slowly lost its importance as a port city, and was replaced by Keelung.

For a few decades Danshui was a sluggish suburb of Taipei. But with the opening of an MRT (= underground) station in 1998, Danshui suddenly became a popular weekend travel destination, thanks to its riverside promenade and its beaches (Kelly / Brown 2010, p. 126). Danshui is also home to schools and three universities (Aletheia University, Tamkang University, and St. John's University) (ibid.).


Danshui's Sights


Thanks to Danshui's small size, it's possible to reach many of its sights on foot. When you get out of the MRT station, turn left and you will see the riverside promenade and some of the old streets in Danshui with a lot of shops, restaurants, cafes and food stands all over the place.













View of Bali township, opposite Danshui. Bali can be reached by ferry





In Zhongzheng Road (see map) you will see more shops and restaurants, as well as the oldest temple in Danshui, Fuyou Temple ("Temple of Blessings", Chinese: 福佑宮). It was built in 1796 during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing of the Qing Dynasty, and it's devoted to the most popular deity in Taiwan: Mazu, the Sea Goddess. In the 17th and 18th century, crossing the Taiwan Straits was a dangerous enterprise, and many immigrants who came from mainland China did not survive the journey. But those who reached the island's shores showed their gratitude for the protection the Sea Goddess had granted them by building temples in her honour.




Before continuing our walk, my Taiwanese friend took me to a traditional restaurant where we ate Danshui's most famous dish: agei (Chinese: 阿給, pinyin: Āgěi). The name apparently comes from the Japanese "aburaage" (note). It is a snack made of tofu with Chinese mung bean noodles (also called Chinese vermicelli) inside, soaked in a sweet-spicy sauce.


Agei in its original shape

Agei after opening it; you can see the noodles inside


Hiking up Zhongzheng Road, you can see other interesting buildings, among them the so-called Little White House, a former customs office during the Qing dynasty, some school buildings and colourful gardens.


























The following plaque informs us that Taiwan's very first girls' school was established by George L Mackay, an important figure in the history of Danshui. Mackay was a Canadian-born missionary who devoted himself to spreading Christianity among the Taiwanese. Although his stay in Taiwan was by far not free from conflicts - for instance, he despised Taoists, whom he considered "blinded" - he is still revered for his contributions in the fields of education and medicine. Besides, he is one of the very few foreigners to have a street named after him (Crook 2011, p. 135-138).




Mackay was also the founder of two of Danshui's universities: Aletheia University and Tamkang University. 

Aletheia University was built in 1882 and it was first called Oxford College, after Oxford County in Canada, Mackay's birthplace (Crook 2011, p. 135; Kelly / Brown 2010, p. 128). In 1999 Oxford College was renamed Aletheia University ('aletheia' means truth in Greek). Below you can see a few  pictures of the university:















Fort San Domingo



Fort San Domingo reflects, perhaps more than any other building, the tumultuous political life of Taiwan prior to the Japanese invasion.

Built in 1629 on a hillside "overlooking the mouth of the Tamsui River" (Logan / Hsu 2003, p. 124), the fort  is one of the few remainders of the short-lived Spanish rule in Taiwan (1629-1642). The Dutch, who were rivalling with the Spanish for the supremacy in Taiwan, conquered the fort in 1642. After the defeat of the Spanish, the Dutch were the major colonial power in Taiwan, controlling vast areas from North to South. But in 1661 they were driven out of the country by Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong), who also took over Fort San Domingo.

After ruling Taiwan for twenty years, the Zheng dynasty was itself defeated by the new imperial dynasty of the Qing, who subsequently incorporated the island in the Chinese Empire.

When China was defeated in the Opium Wars by Britain, Dansui became a treaty port, and Fort San Domingo served as the British consulate. Most buildings that exist today were built in the 1860's (Logan / Hsu 2003, p. 124). In 1972 the consulate was closed after London shifted its diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China to the People's Republic of China, and upgraded its Beijing representation to an official embassy (Crook 2011, p. 139). 







The fort proper was the British Consulate.


Beautiful view from the hill



This red-brick building, adjacent to the consulate, was the British consular residence.

The British attached great importance in preserving their British lifestyle, even in distant places. Everything here looks like it would have looked 'back home'


A portrait of Queen Victoria



I guess that in this room Her Majesty's subjects used to have their afternoon tea





Danshui's Seaside


I recommend you to take advantage of a sunny day to go to a beach in Danshui. Taiwanese do not have the habit to go to the seaside, especially women, who do not want to get sun-burnt, because "white" skin is considered beautiful (that's why on sunny days you will see girls using their umbrella to protect themselves from the sun). Or, perhaps, it's just that I went there in October and that's why there was nobody there. To go to the seaside, you can take one of the many buses that depart from Danshui MRT station.



A nice little guardian is looking after the scooter



A refreshing beer on a hot day (in October!)





Our lunch






Sources: 







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