Oolong in Formosa

Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, has finally allowed me to fit a place to a name. At University, tea-tasting parties were a fad in which I indulged. One of the weird and wonderful teas to which I was youthfully introduced was ‘formosa oolong‘, a smoky green tea which to neophyte students was an amusing adventure. I have memories of sitting in tiny university residence bedrooms gingerly sipping the strange green-brown brew to the accompaniment of the latest Christian choruses played by the hosts, who were invariably providing a non-alcoholic alternative for newly arrived students.

This evening in Taipei, I am once again drinking oolong and listening to choruses. But this time I am on the island of Formosa (the old name for Taiwan) and the music is being played by a charming lounge bar pianist who has clearly realised that no-one minds what western music she plays on the piano as long as it is flowing and sublime.

So much of my experience of China has seemed strangely familiar that it is almost no surprise to have this experience 6,000 miles from home in the lounge of the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel. Listening to Chinese conversation I have to keep reminding myself that I do not understand what I am hearing, so familiar is the intonation and gesture in what is said. In some ways, Taipei seems like an American-influenced mid-point between China and Japan. It is incredibly densely populated, with 22 million people on an island 300km long. The city seems filled with trees, though, unlike the utilitarian concrete and modernist glass of today’s Beijing (and, it must be said, Tokyo).

The buildings reflect ongoing life and investment and gently shout hope, unlike the atmosphere of Shanghai which seemed in some ways frozen at the end of colonial occupation (like other former colonies I have visited such as Harare). Much here reflects a greater wealth, unlike Beijing. Brand and style are common elements of every store I have seen, and fashion seems something of a fetish. People work impossibly long hours, and the streets are completely full of vehicles, from luxury cars down to a vast array of motor cycles.

Whereas the Beijing rush hour was clogged with bicycles, Taipei’s has a starting-grid feeling as acres of mopeds and small motor-cycles jostle for space at each road junction and as every available inch of pavement is used to stand them. The traffic is so heavy that crossing town often takes a very long time, and I am amazed that none of the taxis I have taken so far here or on the mainland has actually hit anything – no journey would be complete without swerves, stops and a horn accompaniment.

If the physicists are right and time is a tree of forking possibilities, Beijing and Taipei offer the rare chance to visit and compare two alternative branches of time and reality. On the mainland, the choice was made for a communist ideology, for central planning, for group wisdom. The result is a grey, morose uniformity that mocks the millennia of exquisite culture and innovation that China created, perfected and often exported to an adoring world. On the island of Formosa there are trees, variety and enthusiasm everywhere, engendered by the capitalist culture chosen by the people’s rulers. One cannot judge which is better, but it’s not hard to know which is easier for a westerner to embrace

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About Simon Phipps

Grizzled geek with eclectic tastes. Fanatical about freedoms, manic about music, radical regarding religion, particular about politics.
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