2011 Taiwan Taiwan My Thoughts

martial law era: 1948 ~ 1987
(source: Wikipedia)

It's the History, stupid!

Although I had never been to Taiwan, I anticipated that the trip to Taiwan would be similar to a trip to Japan except communicating with locals might be difficult. I worked with Taiwanese engineers and I shop at a Chinese grocery store. I thought I knew enough of Taiwan. After finishing my trip, I came to realize that how little I knew of Taiwan beforehand. Taiwan is far larger and more complex than I thought. That is the reason I created these pages.
If I knew so little about Taiwan, probably most people in this country (the US) know almost nothing about Taiwan except its electronics products. Or, the older generation in this country may remember Taiwan as "unsinkable aircraft carriers" against communist China.
The modern Taiwanese history has lots of twists and turns. Taiwan was colonized for many centuries by multiple countries and always their fate was decided by somebody else. Even when Japan gave up its colonial rule over Taiwan after WW-II, KMT (led by Chiang Kai-shek) took over Taiwan and declared marshal law. Taiwan was once again colonized by a group from the outside. The marshal law was finally lifted in 1987. A person from Taiwan recently said to me "Taiwan is a much newer nation". Yes, indeed. It has been only 24 years (present: 2011) since it became a fully democratic society.

Taiwan's modern history contains many tragedies and setbacks but people of the last century in Taiwan were relentlessly trying to regain their right to self-determination. They didn't want to settle for being 2-nd class or 3-rd class citizens. Today's younger generation in Taiwan enjoys Taiwan's prosperity and I'm not sure if they remember that those sacrifices were made. I hope they do remember.

My Surprises

I had many surprises during my trip. Probably it is a good idea to list them so that I won't forget.
(1) Many tourists from the mainland (PRC)
When I arrived at the airport in Taiwan, there were many Chinese in a line for visitors (passport control). I thought I took a line for residents but I noticed all those Chinese were holding a paper which appeared to be a visa. Later I learned that Taiwan is a very popular destination from the mainland (PRC). There are still some travel restrictions in place. People expect more tourists from the mainland once the travel restrictions are further relaxed.

(2) Longshan temple (and other temples)
Temples and shrines in Japan are usually very quiet and visiting them is not something most people do regularly. They have become more or less tourist attractions and they are run like private enterprises (for profit). The first temple I visited in Taiwan was Longshan temple. It was quite different from what I anticipated. People are continuously visiting the temple and bringing their offerings. In the service I saw, people were chanting sutra while the priest orchestrated it. In Japan, sutra is only chanted by a priest.

(3) Mopeds
I knew mopeds were ubiquitous in Taiwan but that didn't lessen my surprise when I actually experienced them. People were dangerously speeding on their mopeds. Fortunately, I didn't witness any accidents involving mopeds. Mopeds provide greater mobility to people in Taiwan at affordable prices. The only complaints I have is the air quality in big cities, as older two-cycle mopeds pollute very badly.

(4) Climate
It was hot and humid. I traveled to Taiwan in mid-October anticipating the weather would not be so hot. Instead, it was hot, cicadas were singing loudly and mosquitoes were everywhere. I completely overlooked the fact that "Taiwan's southern tip lies about 10 miles further north than Oahu, Hawaii" (Wikipedia). It is a sub-tropical nation and I think the climate greatly influences people's psyche.

(5) 100-th aniversary of the Nation
Taiwan has marked its 100-th anniversary as a nation (October 10, 2011) several days before my arrival. Taiwan's national flags were everywhere and big banners, "中華民國,精彩一百" (Republic of China, Splendid 100), were seen in the streets. But it took several days for me to understand what it was. I was very lucky to visit Taiwan in this special year. Although it has been 100 years since the Xinhai Revolution, people in Taiwan had to wait another 76 years to gain democracy.

(6) 1987
I knew Chiang Kai-shek ruled Taiwan with an iron fist. But I didn't know it was in 1987 that marshal law was finally lifted. Spain is another country which was ruled by a dictator, Francisco Franco. But Spain successfully moved to a democratic political system (constitutional monarchy) in 1978. Another famous dictator, Augusto Pinochet, ruled Chile until 1990 and managed to influence the society until his death in 2006.

(7) 2.28
While I was wandering in Taipei, I came across a small museum, National 228 Memorial Museum. I visited the museum without knowing what "228" meant. Of course I didn't know there was a "228 Incident" in Taiwan's modern history. It was a series of massacres in which 30,000 or more people were killed. The incident was not talked about publicly for more than 30 years. The US overlooked the incident as Taiwan and Chiang Kai-shek were strategically important to the US during the cold war.
The museum was a part of Taiwan's effort for "truth and reconciliation".

(8) Thriving small businesses
When you walk the streets in Taiwan, you soon notice many small shops. Quite often the sidewalk becomes an extension of a store and sometimes the area is blocked for pedestrians. I was surprised to see so many thriving small businesses in Taiwan. Small businesses (mom and pop stores) in Japan are almost extinct (or have a very hard time to continue) as they can't compete with wide-range of products available in large chain stores and the prices they offer. This remains as a mystery to me.
I expected to see large grocery chain stores like the ones in California, but I don't recall seeing such big operations in Taiwan. Of course, I didn't visit all major cities in Taiwan so I may be wrong.

(9) Richer than Japan
The GDP per capita (PPP) in Taiwan is higher than the GDP per capita (PPP) in Japan!

Taiwan Japan Note
GDP per capita
$34,740 (2010 est., 21st) $33,805 (2010 est., 24th)
GDP per capita
$18,300 (2010 est., 37th) $42,820 (2010 est., 16th)

Even though the nominal GDP per capita is higher in Japan, The GDP (PPP (purchasing power parity)) is now higher in Taiwan. This means that people in Taiwan may earn less but thanks to its much lower prices of things, they have higher ability to spend due to much lower prices of goods and services. The forecast predicted that the gap would be widening in near future.

(10) Taiwan is booming
Taiwan is booming (or more correctly stated that Taiwan has been less affected by today's economic downturn). Articles credited its conservative financial approach and its economical uniqueness (small and medium-sized businesses make up a large proportion of businesses in Taiwan) for its steady growth. Most major Japanese companies are ultimately controlled by a small number of major banks. a small business's life or death is often decided by bank's policy and decision.

Decades ago many graduates from top schools in Taiwan immediately sought opportunities in the US and other countries. That is no longer a norm as Taiwan now provides attractive job opportunities. This also strengthens Taiwan's position.

(11) Sugar laden cold drinks
It was hot outside and you could purchase a cold drink from a street vendor. I usually prefer to drink hot tea when it is hot. But that seemed not an option in Taiwan. You can pick from a variety of cold drinks but everything I tried was laden with sugar. they were too sweet for me.
You can expect a cup of tea or a cup of water when you are in a restaurant in Japan. I expected Chinese tea (such as Jasmine tea) to be served in restaurant in Taiwan, but that was not the case in Taiwan. I only found hot tea available in Japanese cuisine restaurants. However, I may be wrong as my experience with restaurants in Taiwan is very limited.
Cut fruit was also sold by street vendors and seemed a more healthy choice to me. There were so many things to try in Taiwan.

(12) Taiwan waives the visa requirement for US citizen, but we don't reciprocate
U.S. citizens do not need a visa to enter Taiwan if they plan to stay for 30 days or less (the Visa Waiver Program in Taiwan) so I assumed that the US waives the visa requirement for tourists from Taiwan. I came across an exhibition regarding to Taiwan's diplomatic history. In the exhibit, a panel listed the countries that give Visa Waiver privilege to Taiwanese citizens; I couldn't find the US on the list. I later confirmed that Taiwan is not currently one of the 36 participating countries in the US visa waiver program.

(13) Don't call us Chinese, we are Taiwanese
On my last night in Taiwan, I stopped at a bakery in a back street of Ximending (西門町) and ended up talking to a local, who was the owner of the store and was probably in his 60's or early 70's. While we talked about things in Taiwan and things in Japan (including Fukushima Nuclear accident), I said something like, "Chinese are …". He immediately interrupted me and said: "We are not Chinese. We are Taiwanese".
Yes, I need to remember that.

"Good" and "Bad"


  • People are nice and friendly
  • Prices are cheaper
  • Public transportation (railroad, subway, buses) works efficiently
  • Streets are very safe (even at night)
  • Rich treasures in the National Palace Museum
  • Vibrant city / community
  • Fascinating temples
  • Mixture of modern and traditional
  • Highly tolerant society


  • Air quality in major cities
  • Noisy environment
  • Mosquitoes
  • English is not commonly accepted as a means to communicate

Fast Facts about Taiwan

Population of Taiwan 23, 036, 100 July 2006
Number of street vendors in Taiwan 291, 064 2003
Mobile phones in use 22.1 million
Estimated percentage of population
without mobile phones
5% including infants
Percentage of population under 14 19.4%
Percentage of Taiwanese who shop online 45%
Number of betel-nut vendors in Taiwan 17, 604 2003
Percentage of male population who chew [nut] 25%
Highest Point Yu Shan (Jade Mountain) 3952 m
Percentage of homes connected to the internet 75%

From Lonely Plant web site


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