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Taiwan Makes Its Move

Relations with Beijing may be tenuous, but the would-be Republic of China continues to carve out its own identity. Mike Meyer explores Taipei, from Buddhas to baseball.

When describing a city, people often refer to what they consider to be its polar opposite: New York is not Los Angeles, Barcelona is nothing like Madrid, Mumbai and Delhi might as well be in different countries. But how to compare Taipei, a city that has no corollary, no ugly—or beautiful—stepsister?

You don't. The Taiwanese capital has a far too tangled lineage, involving Chinese imperialists, Japanese colonists, the defeated Chinese Nationalist government, influential Americans, and the young post-martial-law generation of native Taiwanese. The most recent complication, of course, is the island's strained relationship with mainland China. Almost daily, news stories issued from Beijing declare Taiwan an inseparable part of China. The capital, along with the Chinese people, regards Taiwan as a renegade province, passing this spring an antisecession law to prevent it from declaring independence, either as Taiwan or under its more formal—and incendiary—designation, the Republic of China. Beijing wants Taiwan to reunite with the mainland under the same conditions that Hong Kong and Macao did, allowing the island to maintain its market economy. It's not quite that simple for Taiwan, though: Ever since the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, the island has been an ally of the West, with a functioning democracy, and it has had a diplomatic presence on the world stage as well as a defense pact with the United States.

Relations remain chilly between the two, but cross-straits negotiations have warmed things substantially in recent months. The chairmen of three of Taiwan's political parties visited the mainland for the first time, trade restrictions have been eased, and direct charter flights from mainland China were permitted during the New Year. China's booming economy has also attracted capital both monetary and human—300,000 Taiwanese live in Shanghai alone.

Most Western travelers haven't given Taiwan much thought beyond the headlines. The thinking goes, Why choose a small island with a capital of two million people over prodigious mainland China? After a decade spent living in Beijing, I arrived in Taipei, unsure what lay on the other side of China's watery divide.

What I found surprised me. Taipei is a cultural crossroads where baseball games draw crowds as large as those at night markets centered around active temples; where the world's best collection of ancient Chinese art sits in the shadow of the world's tallest building; and where colonial houses have been reincarnated as teahouses, sushi bars, and high-end boutiques.

"When I lived in this neighborhood as a little girl, I would wonder what was behind these walls," says Karleen Chiu, a sociology professor at the Chinese Culture University. We are sipping lychee margaritas on the balcony of Taipei House, a café and art-house cinema in the former residence of Taiwan's American ambassador, which once stood cordoned off from the street. "There were GIs on the sidewalk and you couldn't come near this place."

Until only a few decades ago the American presence here was something like it is today in South Korea. And until only a decade ago, the city was under martial law. But in Taipei, as in other Asian boomtowns, a few decades can seem like a lifetime. The night before, a guide I had hired took me to the 24-hour Eslite Bookstore, but not to show me books. "See all these people sitting freely in the aisles, reading?" she asked. "It's midnight, and this place is packed. Look, those two over there just started talking. I think she is picking him up. And over there, see?" Her voice fell to a whisper. "Two men holding hands."

Dr. Chiu leads me across Zhongshan North Road, past rows of boutiques such as Shiatzy Chen, to an old mansion recently opened as the restaurant 1415 Park. She tells me this is the place to sample local cuisine. She's right—the chilled squid topped with scallions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and garlic is excellent, as are crab-egg dumplings and minced shrimp baked with celery, sweet potato, and almond slivers.

The next day I attend a tea ceremony at Wistaria, in a twenties wood-frame home near Taiwan University. Now a historic landmark, this former residence is popular for the way it evokes the previous life of Taipei, back before it caught the skyscraper bug (the world's tallest building, Taipei 101, went up in 2003). Scholars come here to attend performances of traditional music and browse owner Chou Yu's collection of books on the neighborhood.

Such tranquillity is quite removed from Snake Alley, an area named for the reptilian food it serves. This main pedestrian drag is every bit the tourist trap that the name suggests, but it's a carnival worth seeing, beginning with the penitents at Longshan Temple who kneel before Buddha, filling the air with chants and incense smoke.

From the temple to Snake Alley proper is a 15-minute walk through flashbulbs and fortune-tellers and reflexology parlors. Interspersed amid the alfresco action are places like the chandeliered and white-tableclothed Tainan Tan-tsu-mien, where you point at whichever fish in the tank you'd like prepared. Sashimi is a favorite, a reminder of Japan's half-century occupation of the island.

The Japanese "erect fine public buildings and go in for wide avenues and shady parks," groused National Geographic in 1945, but they offer "little to lovers of music, art, or literature." Today, however, Taipei is changed. It has ten museums devoted to fine art, including the National Palace Museum, which houses the lion's share of treasures from the Forbidden City, in Beijing. Creativity spills out into the streets, too, especially during the monthlong Public Art Festival, which turns the Datong district into a colorful swirl of murals and sculpture.

Pacing past scrolls, bronzes, and jade lifts the spirit but flattens the arches. The concierge at the Grand Hyatt recommends Taipei's hot-spring district, Beitou. This hilly enclave dotted with temples and pools is home to an increasing number of spas where East meets West. The cosmetics queen Amy Ho has opened a charming place, Spring City Resort, which offers facials, massages, and treatments using the valley's sulfuric water. The new Asia Pacific Resort, great for a few hours of aromatherapy and massage, is a wooden château that wouldn't look out of place in Aspen.

From Beitou, it's a short cab ride to the Tianmu neighborhood, home to Tianmu stadium, where some 15,000 baseball fans pile in to root for the home team, the Brother Elephants. Tonight, it's the bottom of the third, the Elephants are already down by five, and the crowd is washing down marinated tofu with beer and chanting "We are all brothers!"

The headline of a newspaper tossed on the ground beside me indicates the largest sign of rapprochement since Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949. The Nationalist party chairman was touring the mainland at Beijing's invitation. Televisions on both sides of the straits carried his speeches live and uncensored. All week newspapers will debate the visit's significance. It's good, it's bad, it's opportunism, it's irrelevant, it's too early too tell. But everyone agrees it portends a change.

The Elephants' MVP, a local hero dubbed the Golden Warrior, steps to the plate, and you can hear all of Taipei inhale.

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