Of sun cakes, 3D puzzles, and the ‘third’ China

A 3D puzzle of Taipei 101

Many years ago, I sat with three chirpy, enviously thin Chinese girls at a press dinner in Singapore.

“Hi, I’m from Beijing,” says the one seated at the center. “I’m from Hong Kong,” says the one seated on the left. “And I’m from Taiwan,” chimes in the last girl. And they all giggled as they shook my hand.

Three countries, three girls, one China.

I thought one day, I, too, am going to Taiwan. I waited a long time. It took more than a decade after that dinner with the Chinese girls. They remind me now of Taylor Swift shaking it off.

The Taiwan that I came to know on a warm July afternoon two years ago was a city of unbelievable calmness.

At the airport, there was no crowd, it’s just me and the immigration officer on a quiet afternoon. Except for one other tourist being served in another cubicle ( a colleague from another newspaper), the entire hall was quiet.

In the mornings, as the bus that takes us around corporate Taipei makes its way around the city, traffic was always smooth, placid. It’s the same in late afternoon as we make our way back to the hotel.

Even on the train station, the rush hour crowd was like any other city and the blinking neon at night suggests a vibrant metropolis. But there’s none of the hurriedness and hyperactivity that pulsate in downtown Hong Kong or metro Shanghai.

But it was a city and a country ready to embrace the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0, two big buzzwords in the business and technology landscape a couple of years ago, and maybe until now. In every tech company we visited, the energy was high on these emerging trends that are set to transform the tiny industrial nation yet again.

Obviously, the epicenter of tourist activities is the Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world, which we visited on a windy night after a short drizzle.

Taipei 101

Then there were the night markets filled to the brim with goodies — clothes, shoes, toys, bric-a-bracs, and street food — cheap dimsum, noodles, and barbecues ready for the picking.

Somewhere in those side streets, our guide insists that we try the stinky tofu, the xiao long bao (yes, Din Tai Fung is Taiwanese it the queue even at night was unbelievably long), the milk bubble tea (it’s here where it all started, afterall), the oyster omelette, and the iconic sweet potato balls.

He didn’t say, though, that if you can’t master enough Mandarin and you definitely want more than just a glass of water to wash down the flavors and spices of a hearty meal, you can at least practice saying “pijiu” (beer). Trust this beer-loving girl, their beer tastes like water so it really doesn’t make any difference if they give you ice-cold water or ice-cold beer.

One of Taiwan’s night markets

But I’ve never been a tourist in the couple of dozen countries I’ve visited in this lifetime. I guess I never will. I only want to connect the dots between past and present, across cultures and geographies, and among peoples and places. From college classes of long ago, I know there’s more to Taiwan than its industrial nation status — history, art, culture, and food.

Future visits look ripe with possibilities. Whenever we pass the National Palace Museum, I tell myself: someday. And there is always hope that someday, too, I could hang out all night in that famous bookstore that never sleeps. I suppose it would be fun watching night owls who want to read and still get a kick out of printed ink on paper.

“There is always hope that someday, too, I could hang out all night in that famous bookstore that never sleeps”

But in the meantime, there are some gems of that first Taiwan visit worth sharing.

On the last and final leg of our press tour, an impromptu press briefing was held at the City Hall in Taichung, some 165 kilometers south of Taipei, the city that they say is most ready to embrace Industry 4.0.

Taichung City Hall

After the press briefing, we all went home with big boxes of the city’s best sun cakes.

Ah, where did the city government officials ever bought those cakes? The sun god must have had a hand in making the yummy sweet delicacy because on my second visit to Taiwan less than a couple of months later, I was looking for it all over town and even at the airport. I couldn’t find any. And I’d say I’ll forever be dreaming of those sun cakes because they are just perfect for the afternoon tea.

Like the bigger picture that is China, I know Taiwan will reveal itself in multiple trips, in varied and variegated journeys. So I brought home a 3D puzzle of the Taipei 101 that my family took days to fit together.

I only need to gaze at the completed 3D puzzle that now occupies pride of place in our humble home to know that someday, the real picture will also be complete.

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