Saturday, May 23, 2009

Taiwan 2009 (Part 2) – Notes from Biased Samplings

During this trip, I have made several observations that either previously escaped my attention or are truly recent phenomena. Thought I would share them with you.

First thing I noticed was that in Taipei Metro stations, people all automatically move to the right-hand side of the escalator and stairs to allow those who are in rush pass by. That is new to me. My general impression of the trip is that people seem even more confident and courteous than before; life must have been pretty good. Also, stores and restaurants seem as crowded as ever. It is really hard to tell in the city if there is a serious concern or significant cutback as a result of the ongoing recession.

Taipei seems more and more international. There are endless offers and exhibits of things from all over the world ranged from food, entertainment to arts and culture. For example, if you take a look of films shown in theaters in the city, you will find movies from U.S., Europe, East and Southeast Asia countries. I went to see a movie Money Not Enough II from Singapore that has acute portraits and subtle discussions of government’s role and the “fusion” culture of Singapore society through the lives of the members of a family. All conversations in the movie are in unique “Singaporean” whose sentences are convenient concatenation of words and phrases of Mandarin, Southern FuJianese (basically the same as Taiwanese), and English in Chinese intonation. Will Singaporean be able to define their own identify and culture with multiculturalism? I seriously doubt it.

Throughout my stay, I saw many students walking down the street and traveling on Metro as late as after 9 p.m. Right before 9 a.m. on Sat mornings, I also saw rushes on a 7-11 store of students for breakfast food who attend the morning prep classes nearby. For decades, reform after reform, dissatisfactions remain and debates continue about higher education and college admission systems in Taiwan. I suppose people have a hard time to accept the fact that one has to work hard and compete for what is perceived to be more desirable. Significantly expanded capacity of university in last decade only diluted the diploma and did not alter the reality as one would expect.

I visited several museums including the National History Museum (special exhibit for Zhang DaQian’s 張大千110 year birthday celebration), Taipei Fine Arts Museum (special exhibit Arcadie: Dans les Collections du Centre Pompidou ), Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei, and National Palace Museum. I also attended performances at the National Concert Hall (Paganini 24 Capricci by Sholmo Mintz’s) and the National Theater (Shamlet, a play in Chinese). With the exception of National Palace Museum which was filled with tourist groups, I noticed that the average age of the attendees tends to be very young, likely under 20. This is quite a contrast compared to my experience in U.S. where majority of audience in concert halls and museums tend to be much older. This may suggest that we will be seeing a society with more interests and diversity in arts and culture down the road; that is a good thing.

Talking about arts, as I picked up oil painting, I started to appreciate more the differences of western and Chinese paintings. For one, as I compressed the visits to exhibits of Chinese and Western paintings, I began to see more intuitively the unique multiple perspectives of Chinese paintings that would seem unrealistic and absurd in western paintings. Yet it serves to free the artists from restrictions of time and space as clearly demonstrated in classics like the treasured panoramic Along the River During the QingMing Festival 清明上河圖. Isn’t that fascinating?!

Well, can’t close my notes without talking about the wonderful foods in Taiwan. In my opinion, Taiwan simply has the best Chinese food (with possible exception of Cantonese cuisine that I have to give the crown to Hong Kong) you can find anywhere however you define the “best” to mean – variety, value, quality, innovation,… The fact of the matter is it seems hard to find lousy food there! In this trip, I visited for the first time a popular vegetarian buffet restaurant called Spring Natural Vegetarian Restaurant 春天 (3rd Floor, 177, Sec 1, HoPing East Road). The food is wonderful but it was a bit expensive. For this all you can eat lunch buffet, it cost $17 per person.

Before I go, I want to share with you a short list of what I consider are the best of the best in Taipei; nothing exotic, just heavenly taste that please my palate immensely and lure me back time after time. I only include the “tourist class” ones that are clean, air-conditioned, with good services. Hope you can try them out sometimes.

For Shanghai cuisine, go to Dian Shui Lou 點水樓 (11th floor of the SOGO Department Store, #300, sec. 3, ZhongXiao East Road). For meat dishes, try one of their specialties: House Pork with Buns 點水烤方, WuXi spare ribs 無錫排骨, or DongPo Pork東坡肉. For Hunan cuisine, go to The Peng’s 彭園. Don’t miss their Honey Ham Sandwich 富貴烤雙方, Soup in Melon 香瓜元盅, General Tsao’s Chicken 左宗棠雞. The latter is the way General Tsao’s chicken should be prepared. After all, Chef Peng invented that dish! For Szechuan cuisine, try String Bean Pancake 四季豆薄餅,GongPao Chiken 宮保雞丁, MaPo TouFu 麻婆豆腐 at the Ambassodor Hotel 國賓大飯店-川菜廳 (12th floor of the hotel, # 63, Sec 2, ZhongShan North Blvd.). For Peking Duck, go to Song Kitchen 宋廚菜館 (#14, Alley 15, Sec.5, ZhongXiao East Road). For the best Marinated Beef in Sesame Cake芝麻醬燒餅夾滷牛肉,go to Peking Place 北平都一處 (#506, Sec. 4, RenAi Road, across from Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall). Their Sour Cabbage with Pork Soup 酸菜白肉鍋 is pretty good too.

For light meals, don’t miss Beef Soup Noodle, the national noodle. One super place to go is the Old Zhang’s Beef Noodle House 川味老張牛肉麵店(105 AiGuo East Road). Of course, there is this must-have Shanghai style Steamed Port Dumplings 小籠包 in the same neighborhood at Ding Tai Fun 鼎泰豐 (194, sec 2, XinYi Road). If and when visiting the National Palace Museum, you can have lunch at its new restaurant (in the next building) Taiwanese Food Court 府城晶華 that serves a wonderful array of traditional Taiwanese specialties. If you need to quench the thirst in heat, go to Ice Monster 冰館 at 15, YongKang Street and have a fresh Jumbo Mango Ice 超級芒果冰.

OK, too much talking about food, I got to go to have my dinner now! Talk to you soon!

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