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Taipei personality  

Lucy Daltroff  checks out the vibrant food scene and sweeping landscapes of Taiwan, while also discovering the island’s close-knit Jewish community

Soaring skyline, framed by the Taipei 101 skyscraper
Soaring skyline, framed by the Taipei 101 skyscraper

 I had never seen a man selling fried eggs on a stick before – but then I had never been to Taiwan.  

Taipei, the capital, is positively seething with food stalls and produce in what has become the world’s trendiest destination for foodies.

This long-haul destination off China’s east coast is now more accessible with the introduction of direct flights from Gatwick, although it’s still a long journey with a flight time of  13 hours.

Taiwan is a comparatively small island, roughly the size of Holland, but while small on size, it’s big on culture, sweeping landscapes and, of course, food.

Walking around this country provides a feast for the eyes with an array of lively stalls, night markets and restaurants offering gargantuan variety and cheap prices.  Then there are the Chinese temples that pop up in unexpected places, the beaches, the areas of hot springs, a dramatic mountain range down the middle of the island and the unique artefacts at the National Palace Museum.

I will always remember too the military precision of the changing of the guard at the tomb of Chiang Kai-Chek in Taipei and can well understand why, on the hour, people rush up the stairs to get a good view.

Yet more than all this is the fact everything works and functions well, be it the transport, the hotels and the service, in what is a business-like and friendly culture.  The high-tech industry has brought prosperity here and it is especially apparent in the sophisticated capital city. 

We stayed at the comfortable but slightly quirky Home Hotel in the Da-An district, constructed from eco-friendly wood and natural materials such as jute and bamboo.  The hotel offers a varied breakfast that includes Western and Chinese delicacies, from bubble tea and dumplings to steak, sandwiches and chips. Even better, it is conveniently near the underground.

The system, called the MRT, is extensive, cheap and provides information in both Mandarin and English.  For little more than £1 each way we were able to visit a neighbouring seaside town not unlike a local version of Brighton and a regular weekend destination for the city dwellers.

The west coast of the island is knitted together by its excellent bullet train, which we used for a two-day break in the old capital, Tainan.

It’s a town full of monuments to its 300-year history, from the trading forts set up during a brief colonial occupation by the Dutch to the numerous temples established by the many faiths that exist peaceably together here.

Taipei Confucius Temple

A cheap and reliable taxi service provides an easy link between the port area and downtown, except for the adventurous few willing to walk the streets, which are, strangely, often without pavements.

Jewish Taiwan seemed an unlikely concept until we met energetic Israeli Rabbi Shlomi Tabib, his wife Racheli and their five children, who live above the Chabad Jewish centre in Taipei. The family are gradually putting Jewish life firmly on the map here with the help of lawyer Ross Feingold, chairman of the community.

Grotesque statue at the entrance of the Matsu temple Tainan, Taiwan

Jews have actually been living here since the 1950s, when US troops were stationed in Taiwan, but there is also another poignant link between this island and the Holocaust thanks to Chinese diplomat Dr Ho Feng-Shan, who later served in Taiwan and was instrumental in issuing thousands of visas to Jewish refugees attempting to escape Vienna and Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Known as ‘the Chinese Schindler’, he assisted thousands to flee to Shanghai and is among Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations.

It was also surprising to hear that in Taiwan today the community numbers nearly 1,000, mostly businessmen, diplomats, tourists and students, although Tabib said that Saturday mornings see a fair share of “JFKs”, an expression I had not heard before until he explained it stood for people that come “just for Kiddsh.”

He is not fazed by that, however, and his inclusive policy is very much part of what he stands for. A limited amount of kosher food has recently been made available at a local supermarket chain and he and Feingold are hopeful that a purpose-built synagogue may well be a future possibility for the Jewish community of Taiwan.

Lucy’s travel tips

 

Lucy stayed at Home House Hotel Dan-An, Taipei, homehotel.com.tw/daan.php and the Golden Tulip Glory Fine Hotel, Tainan, goldentulip.com/en. For more details about Taiwan’s Jewish community, visit jewish.tw/

 

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