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Hip in a Nerdy Nice Way : Notes on Taiwan

Taiwan’s May 20 presidential inauguration will be a subdued event this year due to the global pandemic. But the nation has much to celebrate, including a buzzing arts scene and a remarkable system of public health.

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Bump into somebody on the Taipei Metro, and you’re likely to get a surprise. Even when it’s your fault, they might apologize to you before you have a chance to speak up.

I forget now whether this was a joke I read during my 2017 visit to Taipei or something I saw happen on the Metro in that capital city. But that impression has stuck with me. Manners matter in Taiwan.

Guidebooks about Taiwan cite the lasting influence of the period of Japanese rule (1895–1945) as the cause of the extreme value placed on politeness in this Chinese-speaking nation. In a 2018 BBC article titled “The island that never stops apologizing,” Leslie Nguyen-Okwu wrote about how frequently the Taiwanese say buhaoyisi (pronounced boo-how-eee-suh). (Note: There’s a link at the end of this essay for a bibliography with details on this BBC article and other materials used in my research.)

The Chinese words -buhaoyisi- correspond roughly to the English ones, “not good meaning,” but the phrase translates as ‘I’m sorry ‘or ‘excuse me.’

For the uninitiated outsider, Taiwan may seem like the world’s most apologetic country, a nation obsessed with saying sorry — but in fact, the culture of buhaoyisi reveals a lot about the islands’ hidden layers of modesty and shyness,” wrote Nguyen-Okwu.

Given this apt description of Taiwan, it was a surprise to find an edgy show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Taipei.

Titled “Spectrosynthesis — Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now,” the 2017 exhibition brought together works of 22 artists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Their paintings and videos and photographs explored concepts of identity and of desire. Several of the works were too raunchy for my taste, but the boldness of the show reminded me of visits to New York’s Whitney Biennials in years past. The MOCA Taipei curators certainly were allowed some free rein in their selections for this show, as the ones for the Whitney Biennial seem to be.

Now here’s what interesting about that.

Dedicated to American art, the Whitney Museum opened in 1930 as the pet project of a collector Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. She had to build her own museum to promote innovative American art. But MOCA Taipei began as a municipal project. The city government of Taipei around 2000 decided to repurpose an old school as a museum of contemporary art.

MOCA Taipei this month will open what looks like a promising show, titled “Perforated City.” It explores questions about shared space and community and history through a focus on some of Taipei’s oldest and shabbiest apartment buildings.

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Another show already running at MOCA Taipei is the retitled “Non-freedom of Expression.” It displays works from the “After: Freedom of Expression?” exhibition in Japan. That show was shut down temporarily last year amid protests about its sympathetic portrayal of Korean women forced into sexual servitude by Japanese soldiers during World War II. That remains a sore point with some in Japan, triggering the temporary — and ironic — shutdown of the show originally titled “After: Freedom of Expression.”

“The rise of historical revisionism, racial and gender discrimination in recent years is a breeding ground for such censorship,” MOCA Taipei said in its description of the show. “The issue of censorship is concerned with post-colonial politics not only in Japan but throughout East Asia, including Taiwan.

The website ArtsAsiaPacific included both MOCA exhibitions in its roundup of 10 shows to see in Taipei in April and May.

Also included in the roundup was an Icelandic artist’s show with the endearing title, “Thordis Adalsteinsdottir: “Love, Laundry Bear.” And ArtsAsiaPacific noted that Each Modern gallery would host the first show in Asia of work by Antone Könst, known for his whimsical sculptures.

Three months into the Covid-19 pandemic, with some of the lowest reported numbers of cases in the region, Taiwan hasn’t required museums to close and many galleries have stayed open and active, while of course still requesting that visitors take basic precautions,” ArtsAsiaPacific said in the round-up.

#TaiwanCanHelp

Taiwan has been described as perhaps the world’s greatest success story in handling COVID-19.

It probably doesn’t hurt that Taiwan’s vice president, Chen Chien-jen, is an epidemiologist with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins. He is seen on the right in the photo Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, tweeted as part of the #MayThe4thStars Wars celebration.

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Let’s put Taiwan’s achievement in perspective, using statistics from the New York Times’ excellent coronavirus map as of May 17.

In Taiwan, a nation of about 24 million people, there have been seven reported deaths linked to COVID-19.

That breaks down to losing one person out of every 3,397,207 people in Taiwan at the start of the outbreak,

In contrast, the United States already has lost about about one person of every 3,671 living here at the start of the outbreak, with 89,123 reported deaths.

China’s reported deaths due to COVID-19 — 4,634 — translate to a loss of about one of every 300,546 people. Italy’s reported deaths due to COVID-19–31,908 — translate to about one in 1,894 people.

COVID-19 spread in northern Italy due in part to the fashion industry’s business ties with China. Only about 81 miles from China’s coast, Taiwan has even stronger connections. At the beginning of this year, scientists thought COVID-19 would hit Taiwan hard. There are very strong business and cultural ties between the island nation and mainland China. The virus emerged around the Lunar New Year, usually peak time for travel for many people returning home to spend the holiday with family.

But Taiwanese officials leveraged a remarkable asset: a national health insurance program covering 99.9 percent of the country’s population.

Taiwan took COVID-19 seriously while other nations were only starting to respond. In seeking a second term, Tsai won a record victory in January with 57 percent of the vote. But in February, she canceled planning for public celebration for her May 20 inauguration as part of efforts to stop the spread of the virus. Instead, there will be a livestream of the inauguration. Tsai has spoken of planning to work during her second term to make Taiwan more democratic. During her first term, Taiwan removed restrictions on same-sex marriage.

Below is a tweet about the scaled-back inauguration.

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And, yes, that’s a cat in Tsai’s Twitter profile picture.

The president, who is unmarried, often tweets photos of her pets. Her Twitter messages tend to be upbeat, at times hokey.

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In recent months, Tsai often used the slogan #TaiwanCanHelp in her tweets. The president takes pride in the assistance her nation is offering. A major manufacturing power, Taiwan has donated face masks — a prized commodity in many places — to other nations, including the United States

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You might think the World Health Organization (WHO) would want to tap heavily into Taiwan’s expertise and promote lessons from its experience with COVID-19.

But, no, the WHO has sidelined Taiwan, much to the dismay of many policy experts. China’s Communist Party is adamant in claiming Taiwan is not an independent nation. Instead, China says Taiwan is one of its possessions that will someday be reunified with the mainland. Thus Taiwan cannot participate as a nation at the WHO.

President Xi Jinping of China says Taiwan will eventually fall under Beijing’s control under the “one country, two systems” approach. Xi’s Communist Party has allowed people in Hong Kong and Macau to retain their European-style legal systems after being integrated as special administrative regions of China. Macau was under Portuguese control for centuries before being handed back to China in 1999.

You may have read the phrase “one country, two systems” in recent stories about Hong Kong. The British won control of Hong Kong from China in the mid 19th century during the Opium Wars. In 1984, the U.K. and China worked out terms for returning control of Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997.

But a bid to allow to extradition of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China triggered massive protests last year and stoked concerns about further reach by Beijing and led to further erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

People in Taiwan once envied the people of Hong Kong for their freedom, Tsai said in a January 2020 interview with the BBC.

“But after 1997, things have changed a lot,” she said.

In 1956, the year Tsai was born, Taiwan was under control of the military.

The island had had a tumultuous political history in the previous decades. The Qing dynasty of China ceded control of Taiwan to Japan in 1895. By 1912, the Qing dynasty had fallen ending two thousand years of imperial rule and the new Republic of China (ROC) was born.

When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, China regained Taiwan. In 1949, General Chiang Kai-shek of the Chinese Nationalist Party (known as the Kuomintang, or KMT) lost out in a political battle to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces, which went on to create the People’s Republic of China. Chiang fled to Taiwan and led the KMT government in exile in Taiwan.

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Chiang and his KMT political party insisted for many years that his government represented all Chinese people — on both the island and the far more populous mainland.During much of the Cold War, the U.S. and other western powers indulged the diplomatic fiction of Taiwan as the capital of China.

But in 1971, President Richard M. Nixon set the stage for the eventual U.S. diplomatic recognition of China. Taiwan would be stripped of its seat at the United Nations, while the People’s Republic of China ascended to it.

Since there has been a lot of political kabuki. China protests reference to Taiwan as an independent nation.

One recent flap centered on Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker. Hopkins in February used “Taiwan” as a category under a section called “Confirmed cases by country/region,” reported Axios, an upstart and excellent online newsroom.

But in March, the Hopkins map flipped to “Taipei and environs,” wording preferred by Beijing. This is in line with the WHO’s style, a Hopkins researcher told Axios. After being criticized publicly, Hopkins reverted to Taiwan in keeping with the style of the U.S. State Department.

The United States has pressured WHO to invite Taiwan to a major virtual meeting on May 18 as an observer.

Taiwan had this status for the WHO’s World Health Assembly 2009 through 2016, which was a warmer time for Taipei-Beijing relations under President Ma Ying-jeou. Ma was part of Taiwan’s older KMT party and sought friendlier relations with mainland China.

But China blocked further participation by Taiwan at WHO’s assembly meeting after Tsai became president. She is part of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

There is a sharp divide between KMT and DPP supporters on China, the nonprofit nonpartisan Pew Research Center showed in a May 2020 report.

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There also is a split by age. Although 63, Tsai represents the views of younger generations of Taiwanese people.

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Tsai’s January 2020 re-election win was considered a major comeback, and one made with unintentional assistance from Xi Jinping. Tsai’s DPP suffered such significant losses in local elections in 2018 that she stepped down as her party’s leader, while remaining president of Taiwan.

Then China made what now seem like serious missteps. The bid for the right to extradite people from Hong Kong in certain cases triggered protests. And in January 2019, Xi spoke out about plans for what he terms reunification of Taiwan with China. “We make no promise to abandon the use of force, and retain the option of taking all necessary measures,” Xi said.

Tsai says she she is taking a moderate approach on the issue of China. Some people in Taiwan argue for a clear break with China. Tsai sees this as unnecessary.

We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state. We are an independent country already,” Tsai told the BBC in the January 2020 interview. “We have our own system of running the country.”

Taiwan’ elections considered among the freest and fairest in the world. The nation has a rating of 93 of 100 from the nonprofit group Freedom House. That tops the score of 86 for the United States. The Freedom House categorizes China as “not free,” giving it a score of 10 of 100.

Taiwan and China have very different approaches to tourism. Taiwan does not require people from many other countries, including the U.S., to get a visa. You just show up in Taiwan and get a passport stamp. Easy peasy, even if you are a journalist on vacation.

China? Ugh.

It took a bit of extra work to get my visa for a 2001 visit. I traveled there on a group tour with an art organization based in Boston. I had to have my employer at the time write a letter saying I was there a tourist.

In July 2017, I applied again for a Chinese visa. My husband, David, and I planned to take a big vacation ahead of my transition to life as a digital nomad. I gave notice for a job I liked in May 2017, saying I would leave in late August. I wanted to switch to freelancing to have more freedom to travel. For our trip, David and I planned to fly to Copenhagen in late August and then travel in the Baltic nations, Russia, Mongolia and China. After China, we’d spend time in Southeast Asia. Then we’d head home to DC to recharge before heading abroad as a digital-nomad duo.

The Chinese visa office received our visa applications around July 25, 2017. My husband, who is a software engineer, received his visa within about a week. But the visa office kept asking me for more and more paperwork. The staff often requested documents I’d already given them.

As a journalist, I have specialized in a few areas of health policy and the federal budget. I didn’t think the Chinese consulate would see much to fear in my wonky stories on the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission or congressional spending bills. I complied quickly with each request from the visa office. I even hired an expediting service, but that made no difference. Weeks passed with the Chinese visa office telling me only it needed more time. I had to withdraw my application a few days before our Aug. 25 flight to Copenhagen as I needed my passport back. This was very disappointing as I long had wanted to show my husband the beautiful Summer Palace in Beijing.

But if China had granted me a visa within a month of my application, I would not have seen Taiwan in 2017. And what a loss that would have been.

David and I had to reroute part of our trip. That was not a big deal, given the many cheap flights available then in Southeast Asia. I’d wanted for many years to see Taipei’s National Palace Museum, said to be home to one of the world’s best collections of Chinese art. So we added a stop in Taipei, which was a surprise hit of the trip for me.

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Taipei’s National Palace Museum turned out to be lovely. If I were spending a long stretch of time in Taipei, I’d try to get back there. We also stopped at another must-see attraction in Taipei, the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Below are photos of the museum’s famous bok choy, carved from a single piece of jade. And the animated GIF shows part of its changing-of-the-guards ceremony at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

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But neither of these grabbed my heart. They were not what made me want to return someday to Taiwan.

REV-NOW, PARKS AND GREEN TEA SHAVED ICE

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Gerald, an expat from Hong Kong, immediately pointed out a likely cause for the delays with my Chinese visa application.

We met Gerald when we sat down at the bar in his music club, Rev-Now, in Taipei’s lively Da’an District. He’d asked what brought us to the city and David told him the story of the delays with the visa. Easy explanation, Gerald said. The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was scheduled for mid October, and I’m a journalist.

They were never going to give me a visa, Gerald said.

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I fault myself for not knowing about the big October meeting. Still, I wish the company I paid to try to expedite my visa had been as aware of Chinese politics as is Gerald, who runs one of the best music venues I’ve visited anywhere in the world. Rev-Now was small enough to feel cozy, but big enough to feel lively. Gerald was a perfect host, finding time to welcome us as newcomers even while managing the bar.

Taipei charmed me.

The people of the city speak in soft-toned voices. They smile a lot. I loved Taipei’s mix of quiet and busy. It’s a city of about 2.6 million people living in often tight quarters in a tropical climate. So, yes, there are a lot of ugly concrete buildings and there’s rampant mildew.

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But there is also a lot of beauty with its urban temples and lush parks and greenery. Quirky street art caught my eye, and I spent many hours in fun little cafes.

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Taipei was a nice place for long walks, despite its notable humidity. That’s a good thing because I got into a habit there of seeking out shaved green tea ice as an afternoon treat.

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Of course, Taipei’s one of the world’s great eating cities. We feasted on dumplings and grilled meats and tasty vegetables.

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I not only visited the famous Taipei’s Shilin Night Market, I bought Ed Lin’s mystery set partly there, “Ghost Month.” I highly recommend this book. A New Yorker of Taiwanese heritage, Lin intertwines the history of the island with the story of his sympathetic characters, including a young couple from Taipei who each get the chance to study at separate universities in the United States. Jing-nan, who calls himself Johnny, goes to UCLA. Zheng-lian, who calls herself Julia, studies at NYU.

I’ll close with this passage from “Ghost Month,” told from the point of view of Jing-nan, after he drops out of UCLA and returns home to run a food stall:

Why did we want to be Americans so badly? We were both smart and ambitious. Not that people who wanted to stay in Taiwan weren’t. But whenever there was a global event and Taiwan was allowed by China to take part in it, our national flag was banned, along with our name. It was embarrassing. Especially since we were one of the most advanced economies and societies in the world.”

Here’s a link for the articles and essays I’ve used in researching this essay. It’s posted on my dooleyyoung.com site, if you find the link isn’t working. The Rev-Now posts videos and live feeds of music shows on its Facebook page. They are worth checking out.

Written by

Journalist fascinated by art, history, medicine, politics and food. Has visited museums on six continents, eaten in more than 50 nations. Knows FDA, Congress.

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