Monday, July 7, 2014

Here Be Dragon

Words by Philip Hensher, executive summary by darmansjah

The lake was high in the mountains of Taiwan. The hills were lush with jungle, green and dense as spinach, and the humidity in the air was overwhelming; a few metres above the lake, wisps of cloud were forming in the soupy air. From time to time, the crack of s starting pistol sent a scribble of smoke up wards from the jetty, and two brilliantly coloured boats, dragon headed, pushed out to the beat of a drum. The Liyu Lake Dragon Boat Festival was running through the competitive heats.

On the lakeside, festive stalls had taken root; families were sitting stolidly on stools under umbrellas, the best spectator spots long taken. From time to time, the parents dispatched their children to fetch bags of tiny shellfish, spatchcocked squid from the grill, malodorous ‘stinky tofu’. The teams waited their turn; 14 alarmingly fit young men from the local fire brigade, whose spectacles and general air of thoughtfulness gave them the semblance of intellectual revolutionaries, went through their rituals.

‘Esther! Esther! Esther!’ they chanted, their arms about each other’s shoulders. Another team, on the jetty, jerked their torsos back and forth in synchrony, as if in high-speed prayer. The waiting teams getting a pep talk stood relaxed and confident, their bare feet apart, shouting ‘Ha! From time to time. This was a serious business. ‘Who is Esther?’ I asked. ‘I think they’re saying “Extra”, ‘my guide said.

There are three important festivals in the Chinese calendar: the New Year, the Moon Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival. The Dragon Boat Festival commemorates an incident that took place in Jiangxi province in mainland China in 278 BC. A righteous court official, Qu Yuan, was falsely accused of crimes by the emperor, and drowned himself. The people are said to have thrown balls of zongzi (cooked rice) into the river to discourage the fish from eating his body. From this touching story, the boat races and the festival arose. The rituals and traditions surrounding the boat races are, for historical reasons, better  preserved in Taiwan than anywhere else, including China. Traditional food, such as zongzi is served; the boats are carved by hand, much as they always were.

Taiwan, unaccountably missing from the usual Western tourist’s mental map of Asia, is a curious sort of country. For a start, this medium-sized island confusingly refers to itself as the Republic of China, though it is not recognized as a state by many other countries. Its modern history begins with the flight of the Chinese nationalist before Chairman Mao’s communist forces in 1949. In their flight, the nationalists under Chiang-Kai Shek took historical treasures, including most of the contents of the Forbidden City in Beijing – the National Palace Museum in Taipei is an astounding collection of hundreds of thousands of treasures. Subsequent events in mainland China inadvertently turned Taiwan into a repository of  traditional expertise and history. during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, many historical treasures left behind were destroyed; much traditional craft was lost; and festivities, such as the Dragon Boat Festival, were abandoned. Nowadays, mainland China has tried to reinstate its links with the past, but it is too late, and most of the boats raced in mainland China during this festival are cast in fiberglass. Taiwan sustained an unbroken link with the past, and in its festivals, a nationalistic pride in this fragile country is to the fore.

HIGH in the mountains of Taiwan, Lee Luan-Fu, the wife of a tea plantation owner, poured me a cup of tea. It was a lengthy process. She boiled a kettle, then half-filled a tiny teapot. She measured out dry tea into a bamboo pipe with a sort of chopstick; she emptied the pot into a tea bowl. Every implement had its rest and was respectfully returned to it after its use. The tea was added to the pot, then hot water.  The tea was poured , after resting,  into a small pitcher, and later poured into a cup, which she rested carefully on a towel. The contents of the cup and now, finally, I was permitted to drink it. All around, the rolling hills were covered with neat rows of tea, looking from a distance like corduroy in racing green; tiny figures bent and picked with deft expertise. Carried out without self-consciousness, it could have taken place at any time in the last thousand years.

We were in a traditional world. A visitor from Taipei quietly told me there were no women owners of tea plantations – ‘That would be absolutely impossible.’ Over a dinner of chicken impaled an roasted on a spike, its head still attached, with fiddlehead ferns and whole sprouting peanuts, the owner of the plantation put a different angle to me: ‘Picking tea – it’s women’s work – it always has been. Men only do it when they can’t find other work. Women like to talk among themselves about women’s subjects. ‘ it all sounded rather jolly, but, as in other areas of endeavour, young people were moving away, to be replaced by immigrants, and most of the Taiwanese women picking tea were elderly. In the fields, a walnut face under a conical coolie hat gazed at the foreign visitor. The traditional way of life was still making a good living for the owners up here: to win first prize in a tea competition could mean that the tea fetches half a million Taiwanese dollars a kilo (US$16,500).

Elsewhere, traditional ways of life, still beautifully and scrupulously pursued, seemed to be under threat. Lukang is a town rich in culture; the sumptuous decorative overload of its Taoist temples attracts worshippers praying for good luck, business success or marriage. Around them, craftsmen still work. In woodcarver Li Bing Gui’s workshop, a magnificent gilded dragon altarpiece sat waiting to be transported to the village of Kaohsiung. He explained to me that its extraordinary fluid effects were worked in the hardest of woods – he was proud of his technical feat – before telling me his story. ‘I’m the fifth generation of woodcarvers in my family. My father worked much more in the temples – most of my clients are private art collectors. We’ve  inherited Chinese skills – my family came from the mainland. But in China there is no market for my work. Thirty years ago, concrete construction started to take the place of wood. So there are no skills to pass on.’ Did he see any future for his craft? ‘Well, my son’s learning the trade-he’s my only apprentice. The market’s got smaller.’

Shi shun Rong, a maker of papier-mache lion heads just round the corner, had followed a different path.  ‘My family were in the garment trade. I betrayed the family business.’ All around, the fantasy of the tooted and bearded lions gaped, waiting to be picked up and danced with; the shop was a riot of clashing colours. ‘The paper’s made of horse shit,’ he explained demurely before confirming what others said. ‘The tradition [of making lions by hand] has disappeared from mainland  china.’

And yet the Dragon Boat Festival and the races are enormously popular. In Lukang itself, though the races take place along an unprepossessing stretch of river by a noisy motorway, large crowds gathered to cheer and stuff themselves. Stalls selling a panoply of Taiwanese food at its weirdest and most intimidating had set up camp. Why do the racers take part in it? ‘Money,’ a member of a team from a girl’s school told me, with the prospect of 50,000 Taiwanese dollars (US$1,650) before her. Some intimidatingly fit students had a different view: ‘Employers like to see it on a CV,’ they said. A team from a civil service department were clutching a huge trophy, though on investigation they had only won sixth place, ‘For the reputation of the department,’ they told me soberly. Was there no pleasure in rowing? They looked at each other, and then at me, in puzzlement. Would they row, I asked the students, if the boats were simple rowing boats like the ones raced in at the Olympics. ‘Oh, we’re not up to that standard,’ they told me, not understanding that I was asking about their sense of tradition. I felt very European.

The boats are spectacularly ornate, brilliantly coloured and fronted with the ferocious heads of dragons. Many of them now are manufactured by mechanical processes out of fiberglass, but plenty, wherever the dragon boat races are held, anywhere in the world, are the work of a Taiwanese boat-maker-the only one thought to be still at work at this craft, Liu Qin-Zheng’s boatyard is in a tranquil part of Taipei, a dizzyingly smart and busy modern capital. Across the fields and beyond a humming slash of motorway, the enormous bamboo stalk of Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world, stood like a punctuation mark.

Down here, Liu Qin Zheng practices his art with no hurry and clear enjoyment. Nine dogs were about him, sleeping, an burst into a furious chorus of barking as the unfamiliar visitor came in. Mr Liu was at work on a model boat, his tools laid out in exquisite order. He had the face of a satisfied man; a clever, high-cheekbone, agile face. He seemed alive with pleasure.

This fourth generation boat-builder’s boats go all over the world. ‘Before I die,’ he said unaffectedly, ‘I would like to travel the world to see all my children,’ meaning his boats. His work provides the centerpiece of festivals not just in mainland China, but in countries such as Germany, South Africa and Finland. Was he proud of keeping a tradition alive? ‘I just make a living. The government doesn’t encourage traditions – they don’t want to get involved.’ Mr Liu understood well that, considering the delicate state of relations between Taiwan and the People’s Republic, supporting a one man craft could be seen as staking a claim.

There was something elegiac about Mr Liu’s little corner of the world. His children were not interested: ‘Not enough business.’ His one apprentice was fifty, and also worked as a mechanic. His boats, which cost 700,000 Taiwanese dollars (US$ 23,150), were made to last. He was a happy man: his trade would see him out. When he retires, it may be fiberglass models or museum pieces, unless the habit of making boats as a hobby strikes a Taiwanese as a worthy enterprise.

The Dragon Boat Festival is a custom seemingly kept going by willpower, surrounded by the remains of a great tradition of endeavour. Everyone I spoke to knew what they were doing was important; no-one had a great deal of faith that it would last beyond their lifetimes. It doesn’t always feel like it, but Taiwan has had some luck in its turbulent history, both as a museum and as the fragments of a living tradition. When this dies out, it will still be a beautiful and fascinating place; but the little flame that lights and warms those precious remains of the past will have gone out.

Make it Happen – Taiwan often gets overlooked compared to its bigger Asian neighbours. But this island fits in bold mountain scenery, serious food culture and thriving local traditions.

Essentials – Getting There – both china airlines ( and EVA Air ( fly from Singapore and Kuala lUmpur to Taipei-Taoyuan.

Getting around – Taipei’s MRT subway is an efficient way to get around town (fares US$0.70-US$2.20; The distinctive yellow taxis are everywhere in the city centre, and most city centre journeys should cost around US$3-US$9

Further reading – read lonely planet’s Taiwan guide or visit for more information
The final word – llha Formosa, translated as the ‘Beautiful Island’ The name given to Taiwan by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century.

3 ways to do it

Budget-see- a beautiful oasis on Taipei’s west side, the Botanical Garden contains themed around the Chinese Zodiac and classical literature, greenhouses filled with tropical palnts and a marvelous lotus pond (free,

Budget-sleep-the Delight Hotel in the central Zhongshan district has a classy, subdued feel, with an overall package that gives more expensive hotels a run for their money. The breakfast is excellent (from US$105;

Budget-eat-Quiet until sundown, the sprawling Shilin Night Market teems with stalls selling a variety of edibles such as sautéed crabs and beef noodle soup. Braver souls can try the speciality called stinky tofu (Shilin Yeshi, shilin or Jiantan MRT).

Budget-Drink-sold citywide at street-corner stalls, Bubble Tea is a local obsession (called zhenzhu naicha in chinese). This sweetened tea with chewy balls of tapioca is served hot or cold, and in flavours such as passion fruit and papaya (around US$0.80).

Mid range – See – The Imposing National Palace Museum houses treasures from Beijing’s Forbidden City. Alongside Chinese paintings, ceramics and jade are oddities such as an olive stone minutely carved into a boat (US$5.50;

Mid range – Sleep – heavy discounts on the rack rates are often available at the Waikoloa Hotel. Decorated in a mix of Japanese and Chinese styles, this little haven takes a detour via Versailles as well (from US$125;

Mid range – EatSweet Dynasty serves dishes such as Shanghainese prawns and braised beef ribs with bitter melon, but its speciality is Chinese desserts. Book on weekends to avoid queues (from US$11;  00 8862 2772 2889; 160 Zhongxiao E Rd).

Mid range – Drink – In a land where tea has long ruled the roost, Fong Da is one of Taipei’s oldest and coziest coffee shops. It dates from the 1950s, and still uses some of the original equipment (coffee US$3; 00 8862 2371 9577; 42 Chengdu Road).

Luxury – SeeTaipei 101 was the world’s tallest building until 2009. Towering above the city like a gigantic bamboo stalk, its observation decks offer incomparable views of the city and mountains beyond (US$12;

Luxury – Sleep – With its European exterior, rooftop jogging track and comfortable rooms, the Riviera Hotel is a quite oasis within walking distance of some of Taipei’s best nightlife districts (from US$155;

Luxury – Eat – Dine on excellent dim sum and other Cantonese dishes at Golden Dragon. The restaurant sits amid the old-style Chinese excess of the landmark Grand Hotel (dishes US$5-US$17;

Luxury – Drink – A swanky place with lots of silk curtains, Brown Sugar has live jazz Monday to Saturday nights and salsa on Sundays. It serves good international dishes as well (admission US$12-US$19;

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