In modern Taipei, window to the past stays firmly open

A volunteer guide explains a display at the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in Taipei, Taiwan. — Pictures by Justin Ong
A volunteer guide explains a display at the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in Taipei, Taiwan. — Pictures by Justin Ong

KUALA LUMPUR, July 10 — With Taiwan’s self-cultivated image as “Asia’s Silicon Valley”, it is easy to expect its capital of Taipei to be all glass, steel and concrete amalgamated around a society that lives and breathes cutting-edge technology.

Yet visitors to the island-state and its capital will be glad to know that Taipei — undeniably modern, though it is — clings jealously to its history and cultural past with a fervour that is both enviable and inspiring.

For Malaysians interested in visiting Taiwan, travel is easy as they are granted visa-free entry courtesy of the New Southbound Policy that aims to encourage tourism between the two nations in order to foster improved ties among the populace.

Taiwanese aboriginal artefacts are shown at the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in Taipei, Taiwan.
Taiwanese aboriginal artefacts are shown at the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in Taipei, Taiwan.

As nations go, Taiwan is relatively young, having been established early in the 20th century at the end of the Xinhai Revolution, but the island’s native and claimed history trace back thousands of years.

Like many countries, the current dominant society in Taiwan is not its original inhabitants, which are instead around 16 indigenous tribes known as the Formosan Aborigines that are thought to have first populated the island nearly 6,000 years ago.

Pottery from 5000 BCE are displayed at Taipei’s National Palace Museum in Taiwan.
Pottery from 5000 BCE are displayed at Taipei’s National Palace Museum in Taiwan.

‘Taiwan’s gift to the world’

They are part of the Austronesian people who are believed to range from as far west as Madagascar to Fiji and New Zealand at its eastern tip, in a region that also encompasses Malaysia.

There are enough linguistic similarities between the Formosan aborigines and Malaysia’s Orang Asli to suggest that both may have come from the same stock at one point in time, a link visitors may explore at the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines.

A painted figurine possibly from the 6th Century is shown at Taipei’s National Palace Museum in Taiwan.
A painted figurine possibly from the 6th Century is shown at Taipei’s National Palace Museum in Taiwan.

So convincing are the links that prominent US historian Jared Diamond once authored a paper describing the Austronesian people as “Taiwan’s gift to the world”, theorising that Formosan aboriginal seafarers settled new frontiers and eventually became the indigenous people there.

For instance, “mata” in some Formosan aboriginal tongues means exactly what it does in Malay: eyes. And “lima” means five both to the island’s original inhabitants as it does here.

“They share a lot of linguistic traits; for example, the counting system from one to 10 would, a lot of times, be similar,” Phoebe, a volunteer guide at Shung Ye, said.

At Shung Ye, visitors are shown how the island’s original inhabitants once lived in their native environs, before they were eventually forced eastward by invading Han Chinese who settled the west coast.

Fort San Domingo is pictured beside what is believed to be Taiwan’s first ever tennis lawn.
Fort San Domingo is pictured beside what is believed to be Taiwan’s first ever tennis lawn.

Reaching back in time

While Shung Ye is a veritable treasure trove of Taiwanese history before the arrival of the Han Chinese, it sits just across from — it is unclear if this is coincidental or by design — the National Palace Museum that is arguably the single largest collection of Chinese antiquities anywhere in the world.

It is home to over 700,000 artefacts and pieces of art that were “relocated” from the Forbidden City during the Chinese Civil War by troops serving Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan’s first president.

There, visitors are given a window into Chinese imperial life going as far back as 6000 BC to as recent as the Qing dynasty when Puyi abdicated the throne as the Last Emperor.

A historical photograph shows the Beitou public bathhouse in use before it was converted into a museum in Taipei, Taiwan.
A historical photograph shows the Beitou public bathhouse in use before it was converted into a museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

It is the epitome of Taiwan’s political dispute with (the People’s Republic of) China as it presents itself as a showcase of (the Republic of) China’s history; both Beijing and Taipei claim to be the rightful government of China.

Such is its importance in Chinese history that the museum is filled with mainland tourists eager to see how their former emperors once lived, possibly thankful that these artefacts were rescued from the Cultural Revolution.

Notwithstanding Taiwan and China’s dispute, the National Palace Museum may just be one of the most important exhibitions of surviving Chinese antiquities.

“If they could have moved the Forbidden City stone by stone, they would probably have rebuilt it here!” a Taiwanese economist told Malay Mail in jest.

Steam from a hot spring engulfs a public viewing pool in Beitou in the outskirts of Taipei, Taiwan.
Steam from a hot spring engulfs a public viewing pool in Beitou in the outskirts of Taipei, Taiwan.

Colonial past

Before Taiwan became the centre of the Republic of China, it was a trading and colonial outpost  first for the Spaniards, followed by the Dutch and the Japanese, with an interim period when it came under the rule of the Qing Dynasty.

One monument of the era that remains painstakingly preserved to this day is Fort San Domingo that served as a base for all three foreign powers as well as the British before it was eventually returned to Taiwan.

As forts go, it is unassuming and comparable to Malaysia’s A Famosa, albeit in a much better state due to its use into the late 20th century as a British consular residence.

Yet it holds a special place in Taiwan’s history; no other single site offers such a complete distillation of the island’s colonial past and its complicated foreign relations like Fort San Domingo overlooking the Danshui River,

Outside the structure Taiwanese natives once called the “fort of the red hair” — Malaysians will be familiar with the term “ang moh” — are nine flags of its former occupiers, ending with that of Taiwan.

The display is simple yet symbolic of Taiwan’s independence and continued struggle for formal recognition on the world stage.

Last owned by the British, the site almost did not return to Taiwan as the UK government then initially did not want to transfer it to Taipei due to a lack of formal ties. It eventually relented and agreed to give the fort back to the Taiwanese.

Not all of Taiwan’s historical spots are as complex but they still serve to illustrate locals’ newfound appreciation of the island’s heritage.

Close to Fort San Domingo is the Beitou hot spring and a museum dedicated to the beauty and evolution of the site first discovered by Japanese colonialists.

Conservator Kim Siebert explains the history of glove puppetry at the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.
Conservator Kim Siebert explains the history of glove puppetry at the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

The museum had once been a public bath house where visitors dipped in the waters of the hot spring that remains active in the area; such baths are no longer available here, however, and only at privately-operated bath houses and hotels in Beitou today.

Beitou Hot Spring Museum is both homage to the Japanese colonialists who built up the site and a record of the cultural changes that occurred here over the years.

As its first colony, Japan made Taiwan a showcase of life under Japanese occupation and poured significant resources into developing the island economically and culturally, albeit with a clear Japanese bent.

Taiwan’s remaining affinity for the Japanese is palpable at the museum, where volunteer guides wax lyrical about Japanese official Imura Daikichi who planned the bath house and architect Moriyama Matsunosuke who designed the structure.

Although now meticulously preserved, the museum and the Beitou area had fallen into neglect after the Japanese departed and was once known as a red light district.

Residents rallied together and enlisted the local government’s help to rehabilitate the site, restoring it again to the treasured site it is today.

Conservator Kim Siebert restores an antique puppet at the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.
Conservator Kim Siebert restores an antique puppet at the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum in Taipei, Taiwan.

Keeping heritage alive

Taiwan’s heritage does not occupy buildings alone and remains alive to this day in its fascination with puppet theatre.

Tracing back to the 18th century, some forms of this puppet theatre also link Taiwan to other nations where the art form also reached — such as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, among others — with the migration of Chinese settlers.

Indeed, Taiwan’s affection for puppetry remains so strong that it still maintains a television channel dedicated solely to puppet theatre to this day.

Puppetry is also so significant to Taiwan’s history that it was selected as the best representative of Taiwanese culture during a recent poll.

This makes Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum, the home to over 10,000 examples of such puppets old and new, a centre of Taiwanese cultural significance.

Housed in two unassuming shophouses in Taipei’s Datong district, the museum is one that is too easily dismissed if viewed only casually.

Like puppetry, however, its richness lies below the surface and only comes to the fore with the ebullient telling of guides such as conservator and restorer Kim Siebert.

Today, puppet shows are only sporadic at the museum, but Siebert passionately takes visitors on a virtual tour of the art form’s history and relevance in Taiwanese culture, using her intimate familiarity with both puppetry and the puppets themselves.

Siebert credits the island’s love affair with puppets to its Taoist leanings and its mysticism that remain very much prevalent to this day.

“Puppetry is a part of this,” she said, explaining that puppets served as a means to externalise powerful internal energy, conflicts and concerns.

“In Taiwan, every third-grader can come to a puppet centre for an introduction to puppetry, which is very wonderful and important.”

The museum is currently consolidating its collection into a single location and is officially closed during the period, but Siebert told Malay Mail that visitors were still welcome and private tours available by appointment.

* Malay Mail was invited to Taipei as part of a media tour on Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy that promotes closer ties and exchanges between the island state and 18 countries to its south including Malaysia.

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