With this photo essay, Jalene Chok takes us behind her camera to take a personal look at Taiwan: the Land, the Streets, and the People.
With Taiwan appearing more and more often in the mainstream media in recent years due to its excellent COVID-19 response, semiconductors, first legalization of gay marriage in East Asia, growing popularity of bubble tea, and of course, politics, I am simultaneously happy, yet annoyed. As a Taiwanese person who spent most of their life in California, USA, I’ve seen firsthand how mainstream portrayals of Taiwan in the US and Europe have largely flattened it into a “bastion of freedom and democracy” contrasting China, ignoring the fact that Taiwan and Taiwanese people do not solely exist to be China’s antithesis. No, Taiwan isn’t the “better China” or the “democratic China”, or the “real China”. Taiwan IS a collection of islands with a population of 23.57 million individuals, a long and varied history tangled with Austronesia, Europe, China, Japan, the US, and lots of stories to tell. With this photo essay, I’m hoping to leap past the politics and get a bit more personal. In 3 broad categories: The Land, The Streets (of Shilin), and The People, I’ll be showing Taiwan from the camera of one Taiwanese-born, Taiwanese-American raised, French university-going student.
- Flying into Taiwan, one must go up the entire length of the sweet potato shaped island after exiting the mainland Asian continent via Vietnam. Soaring in, the mouth of the Tamsui River(淡水河) flowing into the Taiwan Strait with GuanYin Mountain(觀音山) next to it is how you know you’ve finally (after a 13 hour long flight from France) almost made it to the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, and to the main island of Taiwan itself.
- Travelling intercity along western Taiwan, you’ll often see landscapes like this – flatter plains and fields in the foreground, cities or towns in the middle, and mountains in the background. Some of the many ways to travel in Taiwan include: Motorcycle, car, Mass Rapid Transit(MRT), bus, train, and High Speed Rail, which was modeled after the Japanese Shinkansen and runs along Taiwan’s western half, from Taipei to Kaohsiung. For many Taiwanese, these forms of transportation are not just ways to get from point A to point B, but an experience in and of themselves. For example, many recent high school graduates embark on a journey around the entire main island called “huandao”(環島). It serves as an informal rite of passage, and is done either by motorcycle, bicycle, or by foot. The path takes one through the varied climates of Taiwan – by the sea, through the mountains, past cities, fields, and more. Another challenge taken by motorcycle enthusiasts is to cut straight through the middle of the island, from tip to tail and back, called “cutting the sweet potato”(切地瓜). On the public transport side, the Taiwanese HSR is known for its decently priced and delicious bentos, or lunch boxes, which are always a joy to have on a long train ride. This photo was taken during a High Speed Rail trip from Taipei(in the northwest) to Tainan(in the midwest) – and yes, I did have a bento on the way.
- Looking at a map of Taiwan, the entire island except for a strip on the western edge is mountainous. This geography accounts heavily for the population distribution of the island, as about 90% of the entire population lives on the west coast, and most major cities are there. However, the mountains are the homeland of many Aboriginal tribes, and well known for their beauty. Hiking is also a popular hobby among Taiwanese of all ages. From Taipei, Yangmingshan National Park is only a 20 minute, 15 New Taiwan Dollar(NTD), or 46 euro cent bus ride away. You’ll catch my grandma and many other seniors trekking the slopes from the wee hours of the morning during the weekdays, with families and groups of students joining on the weekends. Pictured here are a few of the many peaks in Yangmingshan National Park.
- Part of residential Shilin District in Taipei City during sunrise. A mix of older, flat tin-roofed buildings and newer mid-rises can be seen. When it rains(and it often does during ‘plum rain’(梅雨) and monsoon seasons from May-September), the raindrops hitting the tin roofs make a clean tck, tck, tck sound, my preferred form of white noise. Though it looks crowded now, a huge majority of the development was done in the last 50 years. My mother tells me that in her childhood, this particular swathe of land was largely farming fields, with a smattering of residences.
- A view of some fields in Daxi District, Taoyuan City. Not exactly rural, but a calmer pocket of space compared to the Shilin sprawl pictured before.
The Streets (of Shilin)
Taipei City, population 2.6 million, is Taiwan’s capital city. It’s probably most known for the Taipei 101, National Palace Museum, National Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, Ximending, night markets, and other tourist hotspots, but there’s a lot more going on. Being from Shilin District, I am naturally more familiar with it, however I imagine each neighborhood in Taiwan has its own fascinating and unique history.
- Everywhere in Taiwan you’ll find temples for all kinds of deities, categorized by the Taiwanese government into 5 groups of worship(but in practice, they’re most often a mix of the 5): Nature, Spirit(heros, local gods, wise men), Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Many of these temples are dedicated to Mazu the sea deity, one of the most important in Taiwan – in fact, around 1000 of the 1500 or so temples to Mazu are in Taiwan. Officially, there are around 13,000 registered temples in Taiwan, however, it is common to see small shrines scattered along roads, particularly in more rural areas. In addition to being important places of worship and culture, temples often hold lots of local history. The pictured Sanyu Temple(三玉宮) in Tianmu was first established by Fujianese settlers in the 1750s to worship the local earth deity (tu di gong, 土地公) and bring fertility and abundant harvests. Then, in 1921 during Japanese occupation, the temple was set to be destroyed, but was saved by a Japanese man who invited statues of Mazu and the 7 Gods(who still remain today) to the temple, relocating it to its current location. One local myth says that this is where Tianmu got its name – one of Mazu’s titles, Tian shang sheng mu(天上聖母) shortened to Tianmu(天母). Beginning as a small shrine on the side of fields, the temple is now surrounded by stores, housing, roads, as well as the Taipei American and Japanese Schools.
- When there is a river, there is a riverside park! Equipped with bike and pedestrian paths, skating rings, exercise stations, baseball cages and much more, these snippets of nature in the middle of Taipei are popular spot for locals (from the elderly to the skater kids) to hang out. Around 30 such parks exist in Taipei along the Tamsui river as it flows inland. Pictured is the Shuangxi Riverside Park in Shilin.
- France has boulangeries, Taiwan has fruit stands. Though there are often many in the same general area, people inexplicably pick one to be a favorite and stick with it loyally. Big grocery stores such as Jason’s or Carrefour might stock an assortment of fancier imported and domestically grown fruits and veggies, but for the standard (yet still incredibly satisfying) domestic stuff, these stands are the way to go for me.
- A typical residential street in Shilin. My favorite touches are the plants hanging out of balconies and the potted plants perched on almost every available free inch of space on the ground. Walking around, you may notice a few motifs: tiled exterior walls, air conditioner units protruding from every wall, crazy electrical lines…Though residential, some of the ground floors are cafes, laundromats, or other small stores.
- In the late afternoon to evening, you can see all kinds of people from office workers to students buying cheap, yet delicious food from the stalls that completely line Shipai street. Some (though I could probably go on for hours…) classics include guabao(刈包pork belly buns), oamisua(蚵仔麵線oyster vermicelli), lu rou fan(滷肉飯braised pork rice), chou dou fu(stinky tofu), and of course, bubble tea. Much like the fruit stands, many people have preferred stalls for each of these foods and will loyally defend the honor of their chosen stand should the superiority of its food ever come into question.
Taiwan’s population may be broken up into two main groups: benshengren(~80%) and waishengren(~20%). Benshengren, referring to those in Taiwan before Japanese occupation in 1895, are then made up of Hoklo(Hokkien speakers), Hakka(Hakka speakers), and Aboriginal Taiwanese peoples. Though Mandarin Chinese is the lingua franca today, many households and communities speak Hokkien, Hakka, or an aboriginal language in informal contexts. Taiwan actually has 4 official language groups, many of which have nationally recognized variants: Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka, and the Austronesian Formosan Languages(of which there are 16 widely recognized languages and 42 variants within them). Because Mandarin only became widespread in Taiwan after 1945, many elders only speak Japanese and/or Hokkien/Hakka/an aborigional language, and it is still possible to navigate Taipei using only Hokkien(the most prevalent minority language). For many, ancestral language contributes greatly to the construction of cultural identity. Waishengren refers to the mixed population that arrived with the KMT in 1945. Historically, there were many economic, social and political differences and tensions between the two groups due to the brutal oppression of the benshengren by the waishengren during the times of martial law. Nowadays, some lingering differences may be observed particularly in the realms of politics and economics, however with younger generations, the separation between the two groups is blurring, and the direct tension has largely dissipated. In addition to these two groups, Taiwan also has a notable and vital population of migrant workers, mostly from Southeast Asia. Thanks to this diverse cultural makeup as well as its history, Taiwanese culture is born out of a blend of Chinese(notably Fujianese), Japanese, and Aboriginal cultures.
- The most popular spectator sport in Taiwan, baseball was introduced and popularized under Japanese rule. Today, it’s a cultural phenomenon. Just like travel isn’t just the act of getting from point A to point B, baseball is not just a sport. In fact, baseball might not even be the main attraction at baseball games. Besides baseball, crowds are largely entertained by the many food choices (it may be evident by now that we love our food), as well as the cheerleaders of each team. The cheerleaders are seldom off the stands, and lead the crowds in specific dances and chants to encourage pitchers and batters. Dedicated fans will have each player’s chant and dance committed to memory and spend most of the game standing, dancing, and singing for their team! Pictured here is the Rakuten Monkeys vs. the Fubon Guardians in 2020, when Taiwan’s professional baseball team was the only one in the world to have an active season.
- A drinks stall vendor from a popular chain called “ 青蛙下蛋” (translated: Frog Egg) in Shilin night market. Contrary to its name, the stall does not sell frog eggs, instead opting to sell tapioca(which, when boiled, apparently resembles frog eggs), aiyu(愛玉) jelly, wintermelon tea, and other traditional Taiwanese drinks. Each cup, roughly the same size as a medium sized soft drink, is 45NTD, or 1.39 Euro. A personal favorite order of mine: Wintermelon tea with lemon and aiyu jelly. On the topic of drinks, I must insist on this: Bubble Tea, Boba, Pearl Milk Tea, whatever you call it – finds its origins in 1980s Taiwan. Food and drinks stall vendors are commonly found on sidewalks, outside shops, next to roads, and of course, in night markets.
- It would not be fitting to talk so much about food without acknowledging where that food comes from. Especially in Taiwan’s humid and subtropical/tropical climate where the weather regularly reaches “35C feels like 43C” levels in the summer, the hard work of farmers and agricultural workers should never be understated! Whenever I visit during the summer, I must eat my body weight in mangoes, plantains, wax apples, pineapple, lychee, and dragonfruit, but when I look at the prices in comparison to the resources and labor put into their production, I can’t help but feel that they’re worth more. Unfortunately, low wages that don’t rise fast enough, long working hours, and public pressure to keep prices down work together in a vicious cycle to keep everyone unhappy.
- Ok, so this isn’t technically a person, but the stray/wild dogs and cats are a part of Taiwan that I love. You’ll often see loose packs of wild dogs roaming in the mountains or congregating at more out-of-the-way temples(they are pretty friendly with humans and won’t attack, but you should not try to pet them), and stray cats all over. Though they’re technically stray, there are usually some kind samaritans who care for these animals, leaving water and food.
- In the end, Taiwan’s not a perfect place, but in my (potentially biased) opinion, it does well for itself. More important than what political powers like the United States or China think, is the day-to-day reality and lives of the 23.5 residents, Taiwanese or otherwise, who make Taiwan what it is. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to visit Taiwan(after the pandemic, of course) and see for yourself!