Seeing Taiwan Through a Local’s Eyes

The first time I visited Taiwan at age 6 my mother was looking for my father, who had asked us to meet him in Tokyo. When we arrived, we were told he was in what was then called Formosa. A few days later we arrived at the imposing Grand Hotel, perched on a hill overlooking Taipei.

Almost 70 years later, in January 2020, our Diamond Princess cruise docked at the port of Keelung. As our guide, Tom Lee, started up the winding road, I imagined the towering gold-and-red structure glistening in the sun, with massive columns and a vast gilded roof, girding myself for a letdown because places remembered from childhood inevitably shrink to the adult’s eye. But the Grand Hotel did not disappoint. The lobby really was as lofty as a cathedral. With my heart pounding, I walked toward the front desk, remembering the moment when my mother asked for my father.

The Grand Hotel in Taipei, Taiwan, remains unchanged after nearly a century. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

“Mr. Weisman — not here for many weeks, but we have his laundry,” the clerk had said.

I had told Lee I wanted to return to some other sites I remembered. He advised me that Taipei is now a modern city — with one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world — and I would barely recognize it. Still, our next stop, at the Lungshan Temple — with its colorful dragons on the peaked roof — brought back memories. Taiwan has always been inclusive in its attitude toward religion, but it was still surprising that Lungshan is a shrine for Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian faiths.

Longshan Temple was built in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1738 by settlers from Fujian during the Qing dynasty. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

Lee asked what we knew about Taiwan’s history.

“During the civil war with the communists, Mao’s army was much stronger, so Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist army retreated to Taiwan,” I answered.

“That was in 1949,” Lee said. “Following the defeat of the Japanese, the Allies gave Chiang Kai-shek control of Taiwan because it is strategically placed. Many in the West applaud him because he was anti-communist and a strong leader who stayed in power for 46 years. But that’s only one side of the story.”

He led us to a brick building.

“Welcome to the 228 Museum,” he began. “It’s named that because on Feb. 28, 1947, there was an anti-government uprising, which was put down violently. After that we were placed under martial law for the next 38 years.”

At the entrance, a guard wearing a face mask pointed to a sign that read: “Novel coronavirus warning,” referring to the disease that had been discovered in China only a month earlier. For the second time on our cruise — the first was at the port of Hong Kong — we had our temperatures taken.

The exhibit’s walls were covered with photographs of men and women who had disappeared.

“It has taken 70 years to bring the massacres of the White Terror to light. There were as many as 28,000 murders.”

Once we were back in the van, he continued, “You needed to understand how we suffered before you see the other side of the coin.”

He led us through the triple gate to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a massive 275-foot-high octagon-shaped white building topped by glistening blue tiles with red accents. We were stopped at the entrance for yet another temperature check.

“Why do they keep taking our temperature?” my husband asked.

“In Taiwan we say, ‘This is your country, and it’s up to you to save it.’ Also, we have a very health-minded government. Our vice-president, Chen Chien-jen, is an epidemiologist who trained at your Johns Hopkins University. He was the hero of the SARS epidemic, which is why we didn’t have many cases of it here.”

The museum portrayed Chiang Kai-shek’s life and career with pictures, awards, documents, his uniforms and even one of his state cars. Everything, including the 35-foot-high statue of the president seated in a Lincolnesque pose, was skewed to render Chiang as a hero, but Lee had made certain we would view the exhibits through a shaded lens.

A wax figure of Chiang Kai-shek sits at a desk at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial in Taipei, Taiwan. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

Afterward, he took us to a delicious lunch featuring the Taiwanese specialty xiaolongbao — a type of steamed bun floating in broth — accompanied by Alishan oolong tea.

“What do you know about Taiwan’s president?” Lee asked as we headed into the hills to Yangmingshan National Park to see the dormant volcano.

“Only that she’s a woman named Tsai Ing-wen.”

“She was educated at Cornell Law School and at the London School of Economics. Also, she’s the first president of indigenous descent — like my family.”

Lee switched easily from the political to the geological as he pointed to the clouds streaming from the fumaroles, the bubbling mud puddles, and suggested we try the hot spring foot bath, where many locals gathered. The intense sulfur smell was so off-putting that we all demurred.

On the drive back to Keelung, Lee was confident that because of Taiwan’s progressive president and epidemiologist vice-president, timely health measures would protect its citizens. Ten months later, Taiwan’s protocols have resulted in only 600 COVID-19 cases and seven deaths in a population of 23.7 million.

And, yes, my father did turn up several weeks later, surprising us with a home complete with toys, kittens and an older “sister” — but that’s another story.


Guide Tom Lee:

228 Museum:

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall:

Yangmingshan National Park: