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Reveling in the real Taiwan

Reveling in the real Taiwan

The Washington Post ,By Erin Meister, Friday, April 8, 12:20 PM 

At Taiwan’s Taoyuan(桃園) International Airport, a customs agent takes my passport and eyes it suspiciously. He looks up at me, one eyebrow raised. “Why have you come to Taiwan?” he demands. 

 “I heard it was a beautiful place,” I reply nervously, and the official’s gaze suddenly softens. He clutches his hands to his heart and grins widely.  

We are so happy to have you here,” he says. “I hope you find it beautiful, and tell everyone where you are from how friendly we are.”      

Then he stamps my documents and waves me in, beaming long after I pass through the airport doors. 

Although it has something of an international reputation as “China lite,” Taiwan possesses a vibrant national identity and pride of its own. Despite (or perhaps because of) lingering Chinese, Japanese and Dutch colonial influences, the sweet-potato-shaped island has fought to express its cultural, economic and political independence, and a strong youth culture combined with the marks of more than a dozen aboriginal tribes lend it today a dynamic air of self-rediscovery. 

My delight in exploring the country’s capital city, Taipei, comes after I shed any lingering dreams of pagodas and rolling rice paddies; instead, I quickly learn to love slipping through dark, dusty doorways into shops, restaurants and seemingly secret cubbyholes where cool urban natives and hip travelers go to find the real Taiwan. 

That’s what I’m after on this trip: Local color in every shape and form. 

Thanks to the country’s rekindled pride, “Made in Taiwan” no longer implies the cheap production of plastic novelty items. Instead, it signifies a newfound emphasis on the local designer, the unmistakably Taiwanese artisan.  

Finding them, however, can be difficult. Some of Taipei’s most adventuresome and innovative producers are tucked into the city’s claustrophobic back alleys. You have to brave the many mopeds whizzing recklessly by to reach them. But the peril’s worth it. 

I discover an undeniable diamond in the rough in Figure 21, a don’t-blink sliver of a leather-goods boutique hidden in one of the East District’s many unassuming corridors. Each piece here — deliberately cockeyed change purses and meticulously hand-stitched saddlebags — has a personality of its own. The buttery-warm smell of leather hangs in the air of the studio-like boutique, where rough-and-ready briefcases rest casually alongside oddball knickknacks and vintage books, as though absent-mindedly left behind on a living-room shelf.  

Venturing northeast, near the Zhongshan MRT Station, I pop into another pair of local-focused shops for a quick look around — and end up losing much of an afternoon. At the quirky, minimalist Booday, I score an armload of unique, hipstery goodies, giddily browsing through stacks of chopsticks in hand-sewn pouches, off-kilter canvas bags and playfully rough-hewn jewelry. Founded by a group of friends as a design label in 2003, Booday not only produces its own line of screen-printed notebooks that sell for about $6-$10, carry-alls ($50-$76) and T-shirts ($15-$30), it also stocks and promotes local art and artists and publishes its own quarterly magazine. In the homey upstairs cafe, I can’t decide whether to munch a house-made sandwich or get lost among the stacks of CDs by Taiwanese musicians. So naturally I find time for both. 

Next door to Booday is Lovely Taiwan, a not-for-profit shop focusing on aboriginal handicrafts and art from outlying villages — from intricately detailed animal statuettes (about $26) to hand-woven fabrics adorned with native patterns (about $40). At first drawn to more banal goodies such as soaps peppered with dried local herbs, I soon find myself puzzling over a set of beautiful bottles of honey- and plum-infused drinking vinegar for about $12. A sweet-and-sour favorite throughout East Asia, sipping vinegar is often served in small cups between meal courses, purportedly to aid digestion and balance your pH. Dozens of mass-produced varieties are sold in the island’s labyrinthine grocery stores, but I was pleased to find small-batch flasks to use as an unusual cocktail mixer back home. 

From mid-May, when the humidity skyrockets, sunbrella-toting locals forgo the charm of the shopping alleys to duck from one mammoth air-conditioned department store to the next. While Western designers are well represented here, most of the better malls feature local producers as well; I happily skip past racks of Calvin Klein jeans for hometown hoodies by T-shirt designer ’0416.  

At the Xinyi District’s not-just-books flagship Eslite Bookstore, you can meander through seven floors stocked with gorgeous tea sets, funky pillows, hi-tech gadgets and unique stationery from Taipei-based craftspeople. Of course, the books are notable, too: The stunning photographs in such regional tour books as “Taiwan Tribes Travel” by the local publisher Guide make them great souvenirs even if you don’t read Mandarin.  

Department store food courts, meanwhile, offer some of Taipei’s most delicious and inexpensive bites: crave-worthy shaved ice topped with fresh fruit (tsua bing), sizzling bibimbap (rice with vegetables), made-to-order sushi, fried rice, barbecue and even the odd twist on Western food (cone-shaped pizza, submarine sandwiches stuffed with sliced fruit). Staking out a table can be stressful, but no one seems to mind my hungry hovering as I wait to pounce on a seat.  

Some malls boast fantastic sit-down eateries as well. The famous xiao long bao (steamed soup dumplings) at venerable Shanghai-style chow house Din Tai Fung are worth the long wait for a table on the basement level of the Fuxing District’s Pacific SOGO department store. Huge glass windows separate hungry patrons from the dumplingistas in the kitchen, so you can watch them hand-rolling each perfect little pouch.

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