Taiwan: Food, Manga and Graves

My second time in Taipei, I construct the space from memories of Taiwanese films. I feel the distance of Edward Yang’s cameras, that flood of “oldness” as he put it in his film Yi Yi, a contemplative hopelessness that is beyond rescue by spirituality or medication.

Casual feast, where almost every dish represents a different region or country.

Graves are placed near houses. This is not ancestor worship, it’s a continued communication with the past, an adherence to the ideas and the people who guided us. Death seems an apparent fact of life, not because it happens, but because it always could happen, at any given moment.

Every afternoon when the monsoon comes, you never know if it is a serious typhoon or just a small storm. Whenever you feel the earth move, you are never sure if this is going to be the large one that collapses your building, or just a small shake to remind you that death is near.

And every now and then, a Chinese politician will remind everyone that Taiwan is an illegal island that, if it declared independence, would be “washed in blood” and showered with bombs.

Taiwan reminds you that the ground you stand on could always turn into a mudslide.

Change of Guards at the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall

Perhaps it is the constant air of random, sudden chaos that keeps Taiwanese enthralled with newness. A popular café chain explodes with success one year, only to backtrack and go near bankruptcy the next year. The street-food scene flows with this demand for newness by inventing new tastes. New kinds of bubble milk tea, new kinds of shaved ice. They caramelize waffles, toss frog eggs in iced drinks, and turn duck blood into a sweet jelly. The new is a reminder that things are still happening, the world continues, unhindered by political threats and natural disasters.

The food is a mix of dishes from all over China and Taiwan. And they do it incredibly well. The Shanghai dishes I eat here taste better, fuller, less greasy, than any of the Shanghai dishes I had in Shanghai. The refined, subtle tongues of the Japanese pallet seem to have created more sensitive foods, which are Chinese but without the grease, sauce or “juice.” Sauce comes on the side, to dip lightly, rather than used to drown the dish.

Shanghai food in Taiwan

In the popular Japanese manga Hetalia: Axis Powers, all nations are represented by high-school students gossiping about each other. The student who represents Taiwan is a beautiful, rich, sarcastic, stubborn and incredibly sassy girl. She is the popular girl who seems distracted by her cell-phone, and is most often pointing and laughing at someone less cultured than herself. She is quick tempered but cheerful, and an amazing cook. I never liked allegories much, but I can see why the author would carry these stereotypes. There seems like a secret pleasure here, a cultured and grand lifestyle, but the only way to know it is to be in one the joke. Otherwise, you are the joke.

“Taiwan” from Hetalia: Axis Powers.

Hello Kitty Restaurant

mm…Kitty Sweets Burger…

Another way of putting it is to say that quality of life seems the constant emphasis. The food, health, spiritual wellbeing and nightmarkets all seem to cater towards keeping a consistent quality. Unlike in the West, we couldn’t use the word “happiness” to describe it. It’s more like a demand for something of worth, an expectation that the price and reputation hold true to the product.

Oh, shaved ice…with Mangos, dates, blackberries, and–tomatoes with soy sauce.

The sassy and popular student. We can only guess why her expectations are so high, and what she will think of us.

Hong Kong

The first time you visit New York, you don’t actually feel like you’re in New York. You feel like you’re in a movie theater, watching the Sex and the City women perch atop outdoor stools eating Asian chicken salads and wearing netted hats. You suddenly have visions of King Kong rampaging through the streets, or Spider-man in a gymnastic aerial battle, or Jay-Z singing on rooftops.

Hong Kong.

If you’ve seen enough Hong Kong films, Hong Kong too becomes an impossible place to visit. At every street corner I am propelled into Chow Yun-Fat’s battles in A Better Tomorrow, and every streetlight thrusts me into a Wong Kar-Wai picture, until I half-expect to pass a demure Faye Wong cleaning Tony Leung’s empty apartment. The impact of Hong Kong cinema can’t be underestimated, it has stylized the city, given it a voice and dynamic that makes actually visiting the city seem like a total spectacle. It is, for many tourists, simply futuristic.

The only way to get out of this fantasy is to retreat into places the movies never capture—the old city restaurants and tourist spots where white Americans are trying to pay for food with Chinese yuan, or the history museums, or just pick up a newspaper. Reality sets in when I realize that only two days before I arrived, there was the second largest protest in Hong Kong history, much in Occupy style, protesting low-wages, wealth inequality and servant-like living conditions.

Super-organized export zones

Gets me thinking about freedom in our own society. When we want to rebel, there are consumer outlets for it. We start buying different brands, we go to Hot Topic (or Chik-fil-a), or we listen to heavy metal, and act as if we’re rebelling against a larger system. The state actually encourages this, since according to many political scientists, such “soft rebellion” rarely produces actual threats to state power, and in fact can act to absorb much of the outrage by molding it into consumerist desire.

Near Mong Kok Station

Many Chinese I meet know this, and seem cynical towards any criticism by Americans that they are not free. For people in mainland China, dissent and rebellion in the U.S. is actually impossible, since any route towards dissent includes buying more stuff. The system wants you to be a rebel, to do what you want, because you will always end up paying more anyway. In contrast, the Chinese have many ways of consumer dissent (choosing state socialist welfare, family life and the countryside over corporate capitalism), but have few ways to dissent politically.

Hong Kong stands in between these two contrasts. By its very origins as a British territory gained from the Opium Wars, it is defined as a commercial center heavily influenced and determined by global markets.  At the same time, since 1997, Hong Kong functions now as a colony of China, not Britain, and though the Chinese promised to continue a “two system” paradigm, political dissent and harsh state punishment is getting more common. Dissent from either the market or the state is becoming increasingly more impossible. At the aforementioned protests, the Chinese government for the first time cracked down on Hong Kong citizens, sending some to labor camps.

Perhaps, they are not our future, but we are theirs.

To be honest, this is the only reason I came here.

Shanghai: páiduì!

At first, the atmosphere of Shanghai seems silly; you are precarious moving through it.

The first time you are cut in line by an entire family of people who push their way past you like you are a stray animal, you chuckle, because that’s just so different.

Then the polluted air nags at you. You have flem in your mouth all the time; you start spitting in public, you cough so much you can’t imagine not coughing. You train yourself to breathe only through your nose, hoping your nose hairs will reduce the pollution flowing towards your lungs.

You widen your legs when you’re standing in line to keep people from passing you, as if you are competing in a contact sport. As you are cut in line, you whisper “go ahead you stupid asshole,” hoping, just a little bit, that they understand your English. You pick up some Chinese here and there, but the only phrase you end up using is排队 [páiduì], “get in line!”

But that phrase only works half the time. Otherwise they ignore you, shouldering their way past you at the last second. You contemplate how much more orderly and respectful everyone would be, perhaps, if everyone carried a gun.

You seethe at every car that cuts you off at every pedestrian green light. They pull in front, hoping to scare you off, threatening your life for a meager two second advantage. You mumble about their lack of civility, tilting evermore towards using that most dangerous word, uncivilized.

Chinese Style Tourism in Hangzhou

The tourism in Hangzhou guides the viewer towards depictions of Africa, with bylines like “we are all one family.” According to a traveler I meet, this is called “strategic philanthropy.” For others, its “contemporary colonization.”

West Lake

Hanzhou is a city of historical sites made famous by Chinese poets. In other words, it is a city of Chinese domestic tourists. This makes for incredibly disappointing and expensive food, and worse service. Even at Mcdonalds, they forget my order. Every. Single. Time.

The Chinese domestic tourist industry has exploded since the late 90s, when peasants from the countryside no longer needed permission from the state (or their employer) to get on a bus, train or airplane. Since then, the privatization of the travel industry has also created more incentive for motels and other accommodations to provide hospitality to the tourist, rather than just tolerate the tourist. Before they privatized the industry, the few state-owned motels would turn people away simply because they did not want to clean the rooms.

By tourist, of course, I don’t mean the typical family of white folks, or even western backpackers. Europeans and Americans make up less than one percent of China’s tourism, while Asian tourists make up less than ten percent. The overwhelming majority are Chinese domestic tourists, so everything—hotels, restaurants, sites, etc., are catered toward Mandarin-speaking Chinese.

For many Chinese, The 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, as Western media tends to call it, was not a failure of protest, but a success. Chinese who demanded change, for the most part, got what they wanted: the ability to consume freely, produce freely, go to the schools they wanted, and most importantly, travel freely. The state allowed all those things; the only thing they refused to allow was overt dissent (you can protest against specific policies, but not against the state itself). In the Chinese-style social contract, the state upheld their responsibility as being a beneficial tyrant rather than an abusive, exploitative tyrant. Freedom of political dissent, for them, was never a part of the social contract anyway. Freedom to travel at one’s leisure was one of the expressed aims of the protesters. It is a freedom that over 1.2 billion—billion!—Chinese exercise every year. With so many tourists participating in the market, hotels cater to the competition. Even youth hostels are filled almost completely with domestic tourists.

Extremely famous pagoda. Not sure why.

In China, western binaries of travel like the “do it yourself” backpacker (who actually lets Lonely Planet do all the work for them), and the “get carted around” tourist, are one and the same. There are so few westerners traveling in these areas that we tend to blend into one another. I constantly make friends with upper class and middle class tourists, since the travel routes are the same, and we’re all equally lost in the system made for Chinese.

Gone is the mythical binary between traveler and tourist. Chinese locals don’t distinguish between us, since none of us know enough of the regional language anyway, and both groups have enough leisure money to be considered middle-class. There is only one thing that separates tourists here—those who travel alone, and those in gigantic tourist groups, who follow a tourist company’s flag.

We run into hoards of them in Hangzhou. With every step we merge with or out of a tourist group. They seek to understand the lyrics of the poet Bai Juyi, who immortalized the West Lake in his poems.

I most love the east of the lake, I cannot come often enough
Within the shade of green poplars on White Sand Embankment.

–from A Visit to Qiantang Lake

There are ten designated scenic sites, each one referring to poems. What looks to me like “just some tree” carries legends of morphing spirits and imperial suicides. What seems like “just a bridge” withholds stories of the snake goddesses seducing young impressionable men. Even the food, like the braised belly pork, is made famous by poets.

Dongpo Pork

In a country where group tours are the norm , I begin to rethink their validity as a “real” travel experience. Chinese do not seem to have the “rite of passage” concept of travel that many Europeans have, nor the “Grand Tour” concept of the British, nor the “intellectual in exile” concept of Americans. Travel is about understanding what it is to be Chinese, about matching literature and pop-culture to a place. It is done with friends and family; it is not a solitary but a collective enterprise.

All my critiques against group tourism suddenly seem trite. Secured by tour guides, these group tourists at least are learning the history, the legends and poetry behind every place they go, while I can only see trees and bridges. I wonder how much time I’ve wasted securing train tickets, plane tickets, and hotel rooms, while these group tourists simply shuffle in and out of their pre-arranged spaces. Why not travel with your family and friends, and all the while, meet new people belonging to your group, who are just as new to the space?

I have almost always traveled alone, yet for some reason, group travel now seems like the obvious way to go. Maybe it’s because I’m past the 18-25 year old bracket, and just want some damn convenience. As if learning the language, breathing in the pollution, marching through heat and humidity, and wrapping my head around cultural oddities wasn’t enough—I also must do it alone, on a meager budget, with six people snoring in my dorm room every night?

After six years of backpacker-style traveling, it all seems so absurdly unnecessary.

There are Chinese backpackers, but like backpackers most anywhere, they are usually young, elite, urban people, not poor people from the countryside. And, as with many backpackers anywhere, they are usually interested in going to remote places, seeking mystical and spiritual places to contrast modern cities and urban alienation. And like all facets of Chinese domestic tourism, they too are growing.

Suzhou: rocks, gardens and petrochemical haze

A child on the train falls down, and everyone around joins in playing with him. Gives resonance to the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.”

I’m in yet another 2,500 year-old city, where every intersection is supplemented by an ancient pagoda, or a temple, or a stone bridge, or a canal, or a museum. Suzhou is dubbed the “Venice of China,” since its canals stretch throughout the old and new city. It would be more accurate to call Venice the Suzhou of Europe, since Suzhou’s meticulously planned canals and history of commerce predates Venice’s by over 1,500 years.

Lion Grove Garden

Despite the consistent presence of canals beneath the city, few people travel by canals and waterways anymore. There is a subway for that now. Few people seem to eat at the ancient teahouses either. There are KFCs, McDonald’s and local Chinese fastfood for that. Oh, and Suzhou is also the world’s largest producer of laptop computers.

A strange contrast of old and new, these Chinese cities.

This rock garden was assembled in 1342.

Suzhou is famed as a city of gardens. There are twelve large ancient gardens throughout the city, and then many more small ones. Since it’s confusing which garden is the “really famous” one and which is the “sort of famous” one, we end up giving money to homeless people to ask them for directions. They know the streets better than anyone, having lived on them for so long. And unlike the touts holding up maps, they won’t try to convince you to buy anything.

Pollution near Suzhou

Like most ancient Chinese cities, the poetry of numerous Chinese poets is posted on random street signs and bridges. I’m less interested in the poetry (bad student) than in the battles, wars and massacres that have taken place in Suzhou, especially the Suzhou massacre , where 10,000 prisoners of war were killed during the Taiping rebellion. One of the deadliest wars in history, the Taiping rebellion cost the lives of over 20 million people, and was led by a Christian convert, Li Hongzhang, who believed that he was the brother of Jesus Christ and was born to lead Chinese into a promised land. Suzhou played an extremely important role, in being one of the first cities that the Taiping lost to the Qing.

Clip from The Warlords, about the Taiping Rebellion


The rain makes the city even more beautiful. It drizzles down the side of ancient walls, it cascades through the canals, it drips over the stones in the rock gardens and seeps down pagodas.

The constant haze of pollution, obviously, makes the city far less beautiful. So we wait for night and imagine what the city might have been like without it. We silently curse all the rhetoric about the glory of unregulated markets. With one of the most unregulated markets in the world, China’s beauty has succumbed to environmental catastrophe, its cities to an energy crisis, and its people to a vast economic disparity without the healthcare, job assurance and quality of life once guaranteed by the government.