Friday, September 10, 2010

Taipei: old-fashioned charm and modern glitz

Hello from the sub-tropical island of Taiwan. I landed in Taipei yesterday, to a rather strong downpour and lots of Friday night traffic. Fortunately today is clear and sunny (but as hot as Manila!) and I spent the morning touring the construction site of Taiwan's upcoming flower expo and then lunching on pasta with a seafood cream sauce at The Film Institute, a film venue with a nice Western-style cafe in what was once the former US ambassador's residence, in a posh part of town.

It's a lovely old villa with a decent garden and a circular driveway on a wide boulevard with both luxury retailers and small boutiques. I can imagine what a pleasure it must have been to live here once upon a time when it was just a graceful avenue without the retailers. More on that later.

Eva Air's Premium Economy to Taipei

Since it's a long weekend, I decided to join a group organized by Chal Lontoc-Del Rosario of Jeron Travel for a quick sightseeing trip to Taiwan. On the way over here on Eva Air -- a pretty comfortable flight with Premium Economy, an upgraded sort of economy class with more legroom and comfortable chairs right up at the front of the jet, where First or Business would usually do; it's slightly higher in cost than regular economy at the back, but it's great value as it's almost like Business Class without the food -- I was reminiscing about my last trip to Taipei. This was ages ago when Taipei was merely a backwater of a city and I spent three weeks living with a family in an old-fashioned apartment in the city center, while working for AIESEC International as officer for the region and operating out of the AIESEC Taiwan national office.

At that time, English was almost nonexistent but the older generations knew enough Japanese to get by (because of the Japanese occupation and the subsequently close ties between Japan and Taiwan), so I subsisted for three weeks communicating with my host family on Japanese. Again, because of the language barrier, then I ended up hooking up with a bunch of Japanese students studying at Taiwan National University (affectionately called Taita by everyone) and going all over the city on motorbikes with them.

Japanese influence in Tokyo

The Japanese feeling in Taiwan is still very prevalent. As I drove into the city, I couldn't help noticing the amazing number of Japanese shops, restaurants and businesses -- so much so that some parts of Taipei looked more like suburbs of Nagoya to me. They had all the major Japanese chains and practically every other restaurant in the commercial district was Japanese.

Just before dinner I stopped at Taipei 101, the now iconic bamboo-inspired skyscraper in the city that stands out and is visible from almost everywhere in central Taipei. It's a spankingly modern shopping mall and business center that is also home to many international luxury brands. Again, it was just full of Japanese businesses and products! I walked around the food basement looking for something local to try, and all I could find were sushi, shabu-shabu, teppanyaki and even Mos Burger, one of the best hamburger chains in Japan. Of course there were also some Chinese food stalls, but the Japanese food stalls certainly seemed more popular with the locals.

Taiwan's famous pineapple cake

It was here at Taipei 101 that I also tried Taiwan's famous pineapple cake, which our guide had urged that we try from the outset. "What's there to buy in Taiwan?" I asked our guide, as we drove into the city from the airport. Without any hesitation, she mentioned pineapple cake.

It's supposed to be among Taiwan's most famous souvenir products and very good. I didn't really like the pineapple cake that I tasted at a cake store in Taipei 101, which had a medicinal and very sweet filling that didn't at all seem like pineapple to me. But this morning, our guide brought a sample of another pineapple cake -- "this is the best in Taipei," she said -- and it was good, crusty and not very sweet. So I'm thinking of buying from her instead.

Dinner at Din Tai Fung

For dinner, we went to Taiwan's most famous dumpling shop, Din Tai Fung, which was awarded one star by the Guide Michelin this year. Din Tai Fung now has branches all over Taiwan and also all over Asia (except Philippines), but we went to the original shop somewhere in a busy section of Taipei. This original Din Tai Fung was a hole-in-the-wall with the typical Chinese shophouse layout: cashier and packing on the ground floor and tables for diners on the upper floors. Apparently it gets really crowded at around 6 pm as Taiwanese line up for their version of comfort food. But when we finally got to the restaurant, it was past 9 pm so we only had to wait a few minutes to get a table. It was cramped but clean and the dumplings were good -- especially as we were very hungry.

Since Din Tai Fung had received so many awards and recognition, I was expecting to be blown over. But while Din Tai Fung was very good, I wouldn't call it fantastic. However, the prices are very reasonable and it's an authentic dimsum joint, so I'd say it provided excellent value. I'd certainly go back there again. The best dishes on the menu were the garlic spinach, the spicy cucumbers and the Shanghai-style dimsum. The fried rice with seafood too was excellent.

An old-fashioned Chinese city with a modern bent

It was very nice to be back in Taipei after all this time, and to return to a bustling and vibrant metropolis that is cleaner and more orderly than Manila, but still as interesting and authentic as an old-fashioned Chinese city. I love Taipei's wide avenues, many of which have trees lining both sides or right in the island in the middle. It gives the city an old-town feel even if it's actually a bustling metropolis with lots of construction going on, just like most other Asian cities. The old-fashioned feel is very important as this enables Taipei to avoid the nameless or colorless modern city feeling of other Chinese cities found on the mainland. It's also very safe -- or at least much safer than Manila.

"We have little crime here," said our guide, Angela. "Taiwanese people are very nice and helpful, in general. Also, the standard of living is quite high for most people, so there is little reason to resort to crime."

Din Tai Fung
No. 194, Sec. 2, Xinyi Road
Da-an District, Taipei
Tel. 02-2321-8928

The Film Institute
No. 18, Sec. 2 Zhongshan North Road, Taipei
Tel. 02-2511-7786


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