Last Days of Taipei: Taipei’s story seems to get rewritten, and rewritten, and rewritten.
Last Days of Taipei
AS TAIWAN IS DRAWN INTO CHINA’S ORBIT, THE STORY OF ITS SURPRISING CAPITAL — AT ONCE CHAOTIC AND PEACEFUL, GRITTY AND SUBLIME — IS BEING REWRITTEN YET AGAIN.
BY DOUGLAS MCGRAY
Photographs by Michael Wolf
There is nothing particularly Taiwanese about the Astoria Café. That’s what made it special when Archibald Chien opened the place over a half century ago, on the west side of Taipei, the old downtown. The bakery sold fresh bread and homemade cakes downstairs. Upstairs, Chien served dark, bitter coffee, Italian style. Well, not really Italian. "French,” he told me. "Swiss,” he said, picking up a plate of perfect little cakes. Then he laughed. The coffee, the pastries and the cakes — actually, all Russian. "But we could not call anything Russian.” Just about everything gets political in Taipei. Even dessert.
History in Taiwan’s capital has unfolded like a foreign-affairs soap opera. In the 1500s, mainland Chinese, mostly from Fujian Province, began to move here to farm. But the newcomers clashed with the
Upstairs, Chien served dark, bitter coffee, Italian style. Well, not really Italian. "French,” he told me. "Swiss,” he said, picking up a plate of perfect little cakes. Then he laughed. The coffee, the pastries and the cakes — actually, all Russian. "But we could not call anything Russian.” Just about everything gets political in Taipei. Even dessert.
History in Taiwan’s capital has unfolded like a foreign-affairs soap opera. In the 1500s, mainland Chinese, mostly from Fujian Province, began to move here to farm. But the newcomers clashed with the locals, dozens of tribes with their own languages and cultures. Then, in the 17th century, the Dutch moved in. Then a Chinese faction, hostile to the new Qing dynasty that ruled the mainland, threw them out. Then the Qing army conquered the Chinese in Taiwan and put the island up for sale. When they couldn’t find a buyer, they kept it until 1895, when Japan seized the land — and things got really complicated.
It’s more than history to Chien. He explained that he spoke Taiwanese as a young boy, in the 1930s. (Taiwanese is related to the local tongue of Fujian Province; just how closely related is, you guessed it, political.) But Chien had to give up Taiwanese for Japanese during elementary school — when imperial Japan was trying to scrub the island clean of native and Chinese influences. When China reclaimed Taiwan after World War II, Japanese was banned, so as a young man Chien got to work on the new national language, Mandarin Chinese.
Chien founded the Astoria in 1949 with a few Russian guys who had left the Soviet Union. That same year, Communists seized control of mainland China and General Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists fled to Taiwan. They took over Taipei and installed a thuggish government, nearly as hard-line in its anti-Maoism as the Communists in Beijing were anti-bourgeois. Mysterious men started showing up at the cafe, watching Chien’s Russian partners and tracking who came and went — especially the writers.
Business boomed for a while. Taiwan bet early on high-tech manufacturing, and by the 1970s the island was gadget maker to the world. Businessmen would come to the cafe with their portable radios and listen to the stock market report while sipping coffee. Gradually, though, the neighborhood outside, with its narrow avenues, tiled facades and crowds of street vendors, lost its importance as office towers, shopping malls, restaurants and foreign boutiques sprouted from the city’s new glass-and-steel east side. Then came the international hotels with their elegant cafes. Pretty soon, you could get a good cup of coffee and a Western-style pastry anywhere in the city.
The morning I met Chien, except for the two of us and Chien’s daughter, the Astoria Café was empty.
Taipei these days is both cosmopolitan and mellow, thanks to three decades of prosperity that have benefited largely the middle class. (I used to associate the sound of Mandarin with the bumping, every-man-for-himself chaos of China’s big cities — not anymore.) But there are echoes everywhere of the turmoil that shaped the city, and signs of an uncertain future. Which makes now a pretty interesting time to explore.
Chu T’ien-hsin and her sister are a bit like the Brontës of Taiwan. They’re big-time novelists and short-story writers. (Taipei’s dailies publish literary supplements, so highbrow short stories reach an unusually large audience.) I wanted to talk to Chu about her novella "The Old Capital,” which came out in English last year.
We met at Spot-Taipei Film House, a cinema, bookstore and cafe in a white colonial mansion on busy Zhongshan North Road. This was the United States government’s consulate in Taipei until the Carter administration normalized relations with China and left Taiwan. The old house was empty for more than two decades until a few years ago, when Hou Hsiao-hsien, the respected Taiwanese filmmaker, led an effort to transform the place. (He actually showed up at our table to say hello — Chu’s sister, T’ien-wen, writes most of his screenplays.)
Chu has a sweet, round face, inquisitive eyes and perfect posture.
"The Old Capital” was her critical hit here. It tells the story of a Taiwanese woman who returns to Taipei from abroad and struggles to find the city of her youth in a modern, alien place. As the narrator walks around the city, she retreats into her head.
Chu weighs down every memory with details — bus stops, house numbers, songs on the radio, species of flora. "There were chrysanthemums and osmanthus” if your father came from mainland China, she writes of the gardens in her character’s childhood neighborhood, "or hibiscuses and tree orchids (if your father was local Taiwanese) or wisterias and arhat pines (if your ancestors had spoken Japanese).”
"The Old Capital” is crowded with horticulture. I asked Chu why. When the Japanese came, she said, they planted flame trees, cherry trees, azaleas and eucalyptus all around Taipei. Later, the Chinese nationalists chopped many of these down and planted banyan trees and king palms. When locals chafed at the way a small gang of mainlanders ran Taipei, officials began planting native camphor trees. In less than a generation, camphor-lined streets have become the picture of modern Taipei. The stout, twisting laurels grow quickly, like so much else here.
In any boomtown, things vanish and other things take their place. But something more has happened in Taipei. "It’s just one government erasing the history of another,” Chu said. She’s no impartial observer; she feels a deep connection to mainland China, something many here reject, and she’s blunt about it. But she’s definitely right about this: Taipei’s story seems to get rewritten, and rewritten, and rewritten.
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