Friends, thank you for joining me on this journey — this exploration of some things Taiwanese. We’ll conclude today. For previous parts of this journal, go here: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, and X.
As you may know, Chen Shui-bian is in prison. He was president of Taiwan from 2000 to 2008 — the first and only president from the “Greens,” the Democratic Progressive Party. He was convicted of corruption. I understand that there are people who feel that his imprisonment is unjust — that he was railroaded. But all the people I talk to believe that his imprisonment is entirely just. A couple of them say, “It’s not just that he stole. It’s that he stole so much.”
I talk to one strongly Green person who says that Chen let everyone down: “He rose from poverty. He was such an example. We were so proud of him. And now this . . .”
Well, put not your trust in princes. (That line does not originate with me, just so you know.)
We have spoken of Taiwan as an example to China: What must they think of a law that no one, including a president, is above? What must they think of separation of powers? Anything?
‐One night, I go with a friend of mine — a Taipei native — to a barbecue joint on a back street of the city. “Barbecue joint” is my designation, not the restaurant’s. Waitresses are swinging around buckets of flaming hot coals. They are quite casual about it. I think, “What would OSHA or some other agency say?” At home, in America, I spend all my time decrying regulation. In other parts of the world, I think: “Maybe we could use a speck more . . .”
The waitress places a bucket of coals on our table. A little grill goes on top. Out come an assortment of (raw) meats and vegetables. We place them on the grill. And away we go . . .
‐A little party of us pulls into Yangmingshan National Park, in the mountains outside of Taipei. In the parking lot, I get the surprise of my life. Five days before, I was led around the National Palace Museum by a wonderful docent — a refined man steeped in the history of art. Here before me now, dressed in a ranger uniform, is the same man: He will guide us around the park.
I say, “Do you know about everything? Is there any end to your talents?” He smiles and says, “Well, these are my two volunteer jobs. My wife does the same: art and nature.” A very knowledgeable fellow, about art, nature, and still other subjects.
‐The park is full of cicadas, noisier than a construction site downtown. Too bad.
‐Some of the butterflies (for which Taiwan is well known)? As big as birds.
‐Back in the U.S. of A.., and elsewhere, I’m sure, there is a longstanding debate: How many roads and trails should there be in a park? How accessible should a park be to one and all? On one extreme, there are people who would have a park closed off to all but the fittest backpackers. They consider roads and trails a desecration. Grandma will just have to look at a picturebook at home. On the other extreme, there are those who — who would go pavement-crazy, I guess.
Don’t you think there ought to be a balance? I do.
In Yangmingshan National Park, there are actually trails for the handicapped: for wheelchairs. I’m glad there are. There is enough nature to withstand a little pavement, and the average person — even the halt and the lame — can enjoy this glory.
‐We also visit the summer home of Chiang Kai-shek and his Madam — their getaway in the extreme heat. Swell, and fascinating, place. Just wanna say one thing: Her bathroom is pink. (An American Standard terlet.) His bathroom is blue.
Awwww . . .
‐With a local man, I discuss Taiwanese athletes abroad: There have been some major-league baseball players. The man says, “You have to remember that, on the whole, Asians are smaller and not as strong as Westerners.” I think, “If a Westerner — if an American — said that, he would be tarred and feathered.”
‐In a lobby of Taipei 101, I see a man belonging to a Chinese tour group. He is wearing a T-shirt that says — I quote verbatim — “We Need T-Shirt, Not War.”
What is Taipei 101? An introductory course on the Taiwanese capital? No — the great skyscraper here, climbing 101 floors. In my eyes, this building is not only tall and impressive, but beautiful: shapely, tasteful, intelligent, fetching.
Built in 2004, it was for six years the tallest building in the world. Then Dubai screwed them.
I ask a friend, “Are the Taiwanese, in general, proud of this building, or do they think it’s kind of a boondoggle?” He says, “They like it, but the bloom is sort of off the rose, now that the building isn’t No. 1 anymore.” I can understand.
As certified by the Guinness people, Taipei 101 has the fastest elevators in all the world. They are indeed a miracle. Swear: I go from the 5th floor to the 91st floor faster than I can go from the lobby of my apartment building to my 9th-floor apartment. Swear.
One more thing that amazes me: being above the mountains, and high, high above them. Looking far down at the tops of them.
‐In the Taipei airport, there is a restaurant whose sign says, “Good Food Provider.” Nice, simple, modest.
‐Ladies fan themselves with enormous, sturdy leaves.
‐Back at JFK Airport, the immigration official will not really look at me, will not respond to me, will not even grunt: just kind of glowers, like I have disturbed him. Ah, home sweet home.
‐Since beginning this journal, I have received many letters — an outpouring of letters — from readers expressing their appreciation of Taiwan. I have never seen anything quite like it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such admiration expressed for a country.
The letters have come from people who have lived in Taiwan: military personnel, missionaries, sons and daughters of missionaries, teachers, scholars, businessmen. They have also come from people who have visited Taiwan.
By the way, it’s remarkable how many readers are married to Taiwanese women! (I have not heard from women married to Taiwanese men.) And they, of course, have Taiwanese in-laws.
Those who admire Taiwan admire it for many reasons. It evolved from dictatorship into liberal democracy. It has a free and open economy, a juggernaut in the world. Taiwan is embattled, to a degree: excluded from international organizations, shunned, slighted. Its future is uncertain: Will the PRC swallow Taiwan up someday? The PRC has 1,500 missiles pointed at Taiwan. Despite the challenges and anxieties, Taiwan persists and flourishes.
Also, it is a repository of Chinese culture. I remember something a Falun Gong leader told me some years ago: “The CCP says that we are alien to China. Nonsense! They’re the ones who are alien. There’s nothing Chinese about Marxism-Leninism! It was concocted by you people in the West. It was imported and imposed on us. Chinese culture is thousands of years old. Marxism-Leninism is just a brief, horrible detour. Consider the one-child policy. The forced abortion and sterilization. Traditionally, China is family-centered!”
Back to my letter-writers: What people admire perhaps above all is the friendliness of the Taiwanese people.
I have a friend who is a Chinese dissident and democracy activist. He says, “Taiwan is my favorite place.” It is his favorite place for many of the reasons cited above. And, as you can tell, it’s one of my favorite places too.
To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.