I have proof that evil exists. I first encountered it at a street vendor’s stall in downtown Taipei in the form of stinky tofu. The odor was almost tangible: a hovering, dark cloud that hung ominously over the side of the road. The smell, a mixture of sewage, cabbage and rotten eggs, came from seemingly innocent clumps of a white, Jell-O like substance. This was stinky tofu, a Chinese delicacy made by a fermenting perfectly good tofu for several days until it produced gases usually only created at toxic waste dumps.
Luckily, not all the food at Taipei’s hundreds of street vendors had the impact of stinky tofu. Some of the odors were instantly recognizable and mouthwatering: ginger, frying dough, pungent fish, and garlic. Along with local Taiwanese cuisines and fresh seafood, vendors offered up a huge array of cuisine from mainland China, including dishes from Hunan, Guangdong, Yunnan, Shanghai, Beijing, and Sichuan.
For my boyfriend and I, Taiwan was the first step on a year-long tour of Southeast Asia. We pushed our way through Taipei’s crowded streets, still jet-lagged and groggy from the sixteen-hour flight from Vancouver.
I had steeled myself to see the Western stereotype of third-world poverty in Taiwan’s streets. Instead, chaotic affluence greeted us in Taipei, Taiwan’s bustling capital. The city was packed with ample proof of the city’s modern ways: businesspeople maneuvered modern BMWs and Hondas through the busy streets, and smog constantly hugged the city’s skyline. Cheek-by-jowl beside the cars and factories were reminders of Taipei’s ancient past: sleek cars raced beside Chinese medicine shops and temples that looked as if they could have been plucked from mainland China generations ago. More than anything else, Taiwan seems to be a nation struggling to find a balance between the overwhelming crush of modernization, and the influence of millennia of ancient Chinese culture.
Sandwiched between mainland China, Japan and the Philippines, modern Taiwan’s strongest cultural influence comes from the two million Chinese Nationalists who fled to Taiwan after Chairman Mao’s Communist party seized power in China in 1949. In the following years, Taiwan has had a tenuous relationship with its mother nation, gradually embracing democratic ideas and seeking independence from Chinese control. China has responded by declaring the troublesome nation as a China’s 23rd province. Today, Taiwan is heavily influenced by both China’s political power and cultural heritage.
Taiwan’s ties to Chinese culture are nowhere more obvious than in the city’s residents’ enthusiastic embrace of Chinese New Year. Every morning, at the light of dawn, the deafening pounding of firecrackers exploding outside our hostel room jolted us awake. Many Taiwanese believe that loud noises scare away evil spirits, and set off firecrackers, unannounced, on the city’s streets throughout the New Year’s celebrations. The celebrations also have a more serene side, as shops and vendors prepare small tables with offerings of fruit, flowers, and incense to appease the good spirits.
For me, Taiwan had always brought up images of factories busily churning out goods for Western consumption, and frantic city streets. Indeed, it often feels like all of Taipei’s nearly three million residents are crammed onto the streets of the city, frenetically shopping or speeding to work. For hours, my boyfriend and I wandered the streets of Taipei’s downtown; two Canadians pale and alien among the seemingly endless sea of Taiwanese faces. Beside the crush of people, the streets swarmed with mopeds in bright candy colors, their fearless riders darting in and out between speeding cars.
The streets of Taipei’s downtown are crammed with storefronts open to the street, and merchandise overflows from the crowded shelves and across the sidewalk, making walking almost impossible. Pedestrians are forced into the street, dodging the swarms of brightly colored mopeds and cars. The city’s residents walk effortlessly from the sidewalk into the blur of traffic, but we lurched and hesitated, painfully aware of the irony of being run down by a moped on the second day of our year-long journey.
Bright signs for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut were a startling contrast to the swarms of vendors selling stinky tofu and other Chinese delights. Nestled next to the food stalls, shops advertised the ancient Chinese art of reflexology, where practitioners expertly kneaded and pressed pressure points on their patients’ feet. They pushed and pulled so vigorously it seemed as if their patients should be crying out in pain, instead of relaxing with contented smiles. We walked on, past the unfamiliar odors of Chinese medicine shops. Bins of dried medicines were on display, some easily recognizable as roots and mushrooms, with others looking disconcertingly like dried lizards and dehydrated organs.
Like the medicine shops and street vendors, Taipei’s temples are evocative of the island’s rich culture and history. Nestled near the busy downtown is the colorful Bao-An temple, built 200 years ago, as an offering to Bao-Buddha. Brightly painted, carved dragons stared down from the roof, fixing their myopic gaze on us as we entered the temple. Inside the temple, hundreds of worshippers gathered, giving offerings of fresh fruit and flowers, lighting incense, and chanting quietly. Raucous children ran and played loudly next to their grandparents, who bowed reverently, ignoring the noise and confusion.
Across the street, the newer Confucius temple, built by the public in 1925, is more serene. Dark woodwork gives the temple a dignified gleam, and dragons are carved intricately into grey granite columns.
The quiet serenity of the temple quickly disappeared as we made our way through the speeding mopeds and past the busy shops of Taipei’s downtown. The buzz of traffic faded again as we walked down into the city’s underground shopping mall. Here, a modern shopping complex nestled neatly underneath the chaos and confusion of the ancient temples, street vendors, and medicine shops. We browsed among the busy catacomb of shops, enjoying the air-conditioned respite from the overpowering exhaust and humidity. Throngs of people joined us, a pulsing mass scouring through bargain shoe sales and cellular phone shops. By the time we checked into our musty and cramped hostel room, I was so tired that I fell asleep almost before my back hit the lumpy and hard box spring.
Tired of the bustle of busy Taipei, the next day my boyfriend and I headed out for a day trip on Taipei’s ultra-modern underground Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system. Designed to ease traffic congestion on Taipei’s overcrowded streets, the MRT system is a gleaming, modern, and efficient; a sharp contrast to the barely controlled chaos that swarms on the streets above ground. Trains longer than a city block snake at great speed beneath the busy city, and disembodied female voices announce each stop.
Our destination on the MRT train was Tanshui, which the tourist magazine we had picked up at the airport described as a quiet costal fishing village and a perfect getaway from bustling Taipei. At the pier, were shocked by the thousands of day-trippers crammed onto Tanshui’s narrow, concrete boardwalk. The boardwalk was flanked on one side by the ubiquitous street vendors, and on the other side by a pretty view of the water.
At 6 feet tall, my boyfriend towers over most Taiwanese, but he still had trouble seeing through the jostling crowd, and it took us several minutes to push our way through the mass of people, and to the street vendors. The vendors offered squid impaled on wooden sticks, barbequed on the spot, and slathered with sauces. After a ten-minute lineup for one of the few vendors selling ice cream, we tired of the chaos, and fought our way through the throng, searching for a perch on the crowded dock to sit and watch the sun set. A few hundred meters further down the boardwalk, local fishermen ignored the throngs of people, and cast their lines hopefully into the murky grey of the bay, although we never saw them reel in any catch.
Slumped into my hard, plastic MRT train seat on the journey back from Tanshui, I finally had a moment of quiet. Numerous time zones and 3,000 kilometers away from home, my boyfriend and I sped through the night, back to Taipei. Tomorrow I would awake to the bang of firecrackers outside my window, and once again push my way through the chaotic frenzy of the city streets. But that was tomorrow, and for now, all that existed was the pulsating hum of voices, the soothing roar of the train in my ears, and my boyfriend’s comforting arm.