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June 6, 2011

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A welcome return to the Beautiful Island

TIME passes quickly and it is well over 30 years since I was first in Taipei as a young woman. The second time was when the bamboo curtain was first lifted on the Chinese mainland. And the third trip was taken recently during spring vacation when I had already become gray.

In some ways, Taipei has changed drastically. For a small sum, you can get the best snack foods or hearty meals in Shilin where you find yourself jostling with the young to get a bargain at the stands that overflow onto the side streets and thoroughfares.

All the old Taoist and Buddhist temples have shiny and prosperous facelifts. The faithful, the young and old, come to these places of worship bearing gifts of flowers and fruits.

And on the grounds, incense smoke fills the air, slowly making their way to heaven, bearing supplications and thanksgiving.

It is truly remarkable that the modern, high-tech and the old, historic, exist side by side. While standing on the grounds of the Grand Hotel built to look like the emperor's palace but grander, Taipei 101 can be seen in the distance, towering over the city lights.

Though I did not venture far from Taipei, I did fly to Hualien. The airport there looked like some Middle Eastern seven-star hotel lobby, cavernous and gorgeous. Every square inch was covered in marble. It certainly was not the Hualien of some 30-odd years ago.

Hualien was the beginning of my journey into the Taroko Gorge, well known for its natural beauty and numerous scenic sights: massive marble and granite encrusted into the landscape, plunging mountain sides, meandering rivers, winding roads also tunneled into mountains, and overwhelming tropical lushness. No wonder the Portuguese when they saw Taiwan for the first time called it Beautiful Island.

My curiosity about Taiwan began long ago because I had a passport issued by Taiwan, even though I had never set foot on the island.

My family moved from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong after the liberation in 1949.

On my first trip to Taiwan, I was struck by déjà vu; the smells and sights were the same as those from some long forgotten past. Taipei was like comfort food from childhood. Perhaps, it was the familiarity of my mother's tongue or the fact that others around me looked like me, black hair and friendly brown eyes.

On this recent trip, Taipei was again draped in green and decked with flowers. Especially this spring, the flowers were more exquisite in and around the International Flower Expo that was being hosted by the city.

Because of this, the residents of Taipei were extremely proud of the honor. They were quick to say that almost 900,000 people had visited the flower show.

One lady I spoke to had visited the show seven times in six months. Although there were huge crowds, the people were orderly and polite. They waited patiently in long lines for hours just to get a glimpse of the displays whereas the first time I was in Taipei the people did not bother to line up even at the post office.

To lessen the traffic congestion, the city provided free shuttle transportation from other modes of public transportation. On the bus and the subway, the young and middle-aged always got up to offer their seats to mothers with small children or the elderly. Fortunately or unfortunately, I'm still a few years shy from the magical look.

Whereas years ago, many people spoke only Taiwanese or Japanese, now some on the streets are multilingual. I inadvertently shared a taxi to the airport with someone who spoke fluent Mandarin, Taiwanese, Filipino, English and German. To my surprise, many older folks also spoke some English and they were especially tentative to those who were visiting from America.

The streets of Taipei were immaculate. Often, in the morning hours, older women would meticulously sweep the streets as if their jobs were just as important as those who dressed in a somber suit and tie.

And the shops opened late in the evening. The people of Taiwan were industrious.

The mainlanders have come out of curiosity to see the treasures and simply to satisfy their curiosity about another group of Chinese people who share their same cultural and historical roots. Their enthusiasm for their Taiwan cousins is boundless.

Things are changing very rapidly in Taiwan, especially in the high-tech global village. I wonder what Taipei will be like this summer?

(Catherine Li is a US-based freelancer.)


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