Sun, Nov 30, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Taking another look at Taipei and finding an 'amazing culture'

This book should dispel the old impression of Taipei as a place with nothing much to see apart from the National Palace Museum


By Christopher Logan and Teresa Hsu, SMC publishing, 342 pages

This excellent book is a paean of praise for Taipei. Although ostensibly a guidebook, it's a guidebook with a message. What it argues is that Taipei, with its "rich and progressive culture," is "the most modern and liberated city that could be referred to as Chinese." How welcome it is to read these words! This is precisely what this reviewer has been arguing to anyone who'd listen for five years and more. At last here is the case made at book length, both eloquently and with all the detail that a handy guide for residents and visitors alike requires.

The authors strike a positive note right from the start. "An amazing culture is now blooming in Taipei," they assert, and the "rich delight" this culture offers at the present moment is the constant theme of their endlessly fascinating book.

Taipei is "quite unique" they insist. With "one of the best-educated populations in Asia" and "a surprising patchwork of cultural traditions," it nevertheless manages to feel "more like a party than a museum."

This is spot on, but who else is arguing this? Few people that I know. But it's absolutely right, and what's more it's expressed with a great sensitivity to nuances, together with a not inconsiderable amount of tact.

Politics can get in the way of such a positive picture. These authors, though, tread that hazardous path with great equanimity and poise. "Taiwan is very Chinese, but not the same as China," they write in their introduction (headlined "A Joyous Appeal"). Once you read that you know you're in good hands, and indeed a wise and carefully balanced viewpoint in practice never wavers.

The book is strong on dance and performance companies generally. The extraordinary allure of the highly professional Han Tang Pear Garden Dancers, with their ancient, minimalist "nan guan" music, is rightly praised. But is there any other guidebook that even mentions them?

There isn't usually the space to evoke the performance groups' essence in detail, but this hardly matters as one of the authors' specialties is concision. Thus of Thalie Theatre, they remark, "Director Daniel Petursson typically directs campy versions of complex, serious plays." What does this mean? Is it praise or censure? Are the serious plays being helped or hindered by the "campy" treatment? The answer is that it's appropriately ambiguous and open-ended. Several possible views of the group are encapsulated in a few words that anyone who's ever seen its shows cannot easily disagree with.

Christopher Logan lived in Taipei for many years, and Teresa Hsu is his wife. They are currently based in the American north-west, and by all accounts he can't wait for a chance to get back here. They have a daughter who, they write, "will inherit two of the greatest cultures in the world, the European and the Chinese."

One important point to note is that this is not a guide solely to culture. It also operates as a comprehensive guide to Taipei generally, listing hotels and restaurants, and giving information on climate, visas, parks and gardens and so on -- in other words most of the things regular guidebooks offer and visitors need to know.

Are there any shortcomings to this book? I noticed a couple. The MRT map is laughably futuristic, containing as it does three lines that currently don't exist as far as the traveling public is concerned, including one that strikes out dramatically into the hearts of Sanchung and Hsinchuang. And the advice to those wanting to visit the island's high central mountains -- to go with the Alpine Association in parties of three of more and hire a guide -- omits to mention the way most Taiwanese visit these areas, in groups which you can sign up for at one of the two older mountain equipment stores near the corner of Zhongshan North Road and Zhongxiao East Road.

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