A Taste of Taiwan

Tainan is a place for the senses. There are bright lanterns stringing the temple lined streets, clouds of incense blowing in the air, smells of fresh (and not so fresh) street food at every corner and loud sounds of fighter jets flying over head and fire crackers going off in the distance.

Tainan is the old capital of Taiwan – a country with a very complex history. Known as Formosa, the island was occupied for trade purposes by the Dutch before being claimed by the Qing dynasty in the 17th century. The Japanese colonized the island at the end of the 19th century until their defeat in the Second World War, when the island was returned to the Republic of China. However, following the Chinese Civil War, the Communist Party of China took control of the mainland and founded the People’s Republic of China. The Republic of China government, their sympathizers and other wealthy business men fled to Taiwan to escape communist rule in China and continued to claim to be the legitimate government of all of China.

In the early years, Taiwan was never considered a separate country but simply a continuation of pre-communist China. While the younger generation have created a new Taiwanese identity for themselves, many of the older generation had hopes to return to mainland China and still identify as being Chinese.

China considers Taiwan to be a renegade province and has never recognized its sovereignty. Neither do most other countries, despite continuing to represent all of China at the UN for 22 years following the communist takeover of China. Even Taiwan still claims its official name to be the Republic of China. It’s all quite complicated, so if you are interested you should read more here.

Tainan is a city of 1.8 million, situated in the tropical south. It is famous for being the cultural hub of Taiwan and is known across the country for its delicious snack food. We’ve spent the last weeks sampling a bit of both!

Our accommodation in Tainan is probably our most basic yet. It has served our needs but we must say it hasn’t been our favourite (it could be that funky smell coming from the pipes). You can check it out here. The biggest plus of this place is that it is walking distance to almost everything we have seen, making it really easy to sight see with a little one.

Our favourite experience so far has been our visit to the Ten Drum Culture Village, which is located in the outskirts of Tainan in an old sugar refinery. The old factory was bought by the Ten Drum Art Percussion Group in 2005, with the goal of preserving Taiwan’s industrial heritage and promoting drum art. Ten Drum were nominated for a Grammy for best international music and have played huge venues like the Sydney Olympics and the World Cup in South Korea.

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This place was an amazing example of a re-purposed industrial space. It has huge warehouses that have been converted into modern playscapes, cafes, museums, theaters and classrooms. Nu loved the glass floors in the big cisterns, the massive tractor and the huge slides, but most of all he was entranced by the performance by Ten Drum, which left us all in awe. Just to give you an idea of how truly amazing they were – they managed to keep a very busy 14-month-old sitting still for 30 minutes.

Near the Ten Drum Village we also visited the huge Chimei Musuem, which is a private museum which has just recently opened. The building is quite impressive, and despite having a very random mix of collections, is a really great museum. I absolutely loved the exhibit on Origami, which had the most exquisite paper creations I have ever seen. There was even a special art space where we could try our own Origami, but Nu loved my creations so much that he kept squishing them with his little hands.

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We’ve also loved the historic streets in downtown Tainan, like Shennog and Fuzhong Street, the funky art districts, and the small alleys in the Anping area. The history of Anping dates back to the 17th century, when the Dutch East India Company occupied this area and built Fort Zeelandia. It is also home to the Anping Treehouse – an old trading warehouse that has been taken over by a massive 70-year-old banyan tree.

Very near our apartment is another historic site of the Dutch occupation, called the Chikhan Tower (Fort Provintia). Built in 1653, it was used as a trading and military outpost until 1662, when it was conquered by the Ming Dynasty.

We have also visited the Confucius Temple many times because it’s right around the corner from us and a nice peaceful place for Nu to run around. It’s the first Confucius temple that was built in Taiwan and is more than 300 years old. Unlike all the other temples here which are brightly painted and ornately decorated, this temple is very modest (following Confucius wisdom of frugality).  Confucianism is a very interesting religion, which places emphasis on family and social harmony rather than otherworldly spiritual forces, and has been credited for the rise of the East Asian economy.

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For sampling the famous snack food in Tainan, there is no doubt that the Flower Night Market is the place to go. On first arrival, Sami and I swore to each other that there was no way we could possibly eat there because the offensive melange of very unique smells. But one tour around the market and an octopus on a stick later and we were sold! Sami had been dreaming of it ever since!

Of course, my favourite food here has been a Korean BBQ spot called Bungy Jump. I swear I just can’t get enough and neither can Nu! It seems that wherever we go we become regulars at a handful of restaurants – so much so that when we arrive they ask if we want our ‘usual’. I’ve also fallen in love with a bakery called Angel Bake, where everything tastes like it’s actually been baked by an angel. I love these strange buns that seem to be filled with an egg and coconut filling with a sweet crust that I swear has black pepper in it. It sounds gross but they are so amazing I don’t know what I’ll do without them once we leave Taiwan.