Travels & Traditions: Taiwan, Nurture vs. Nature - #1106

BURT WOLF: In 1869, Francis Galton, an English anthropologist and all-around smart guy published a book titled Hereditary Genius in which he argued that all talent was the result of heredity. No matter what the skill --- from painting a great picture --- to inventing a perfect recipe --- it was always the result of the genes you received from your parents. A few years later, he introduced the idea of nature vs. nurture, once again claiming that it was all about genetics.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Today, we know that he was smart but he was wrong. What we are is the result of the interaction of our genes and our environment. And we are changing constantly throughout our lives. The net result, our biology is actually altered by our environment.

BURT WOLF: One amazing study showed that the part of a cab drivers brain that remembers locations got bigger the longer he or she drove a cab. And there were dozens of drivers in the experiment. It’s remarkable, part of their brains actually got bigger.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): I began to wonder what happens to your brain when you change environments. What happens if you grew up in one culture and suddenly moved to another? That's what happened to me. I grew up in the United States and then suddenly moved to Europe with my family.

BURT WOLF: That also happened even more dramatically to a number of people I know who grew up in the traditional Chinese culture of Taiwan and then suddenly moved to the States. Did parts of our brains change shape? Did we change the way we thought? I wasn’t ready to put my head into an MRI and have a brain scan, but I was certainly up for a half dozen interesting interviews and a few weeks in Taiwan.

Taiwan is an island off the coast of mainland China. It’s 250 miles long and about 90 miles wide at its widest point. The first Europeans to get a look at it were Portuguese traders and as soon as they saw it they called it Ilha Formosa --- the beautiful island.

About 23 million people live in Taiwan. Almost 98 percent are ethnically Chinese and they have held on to much of their traditional culture.

Every few blocks there is a temple dedicated to one of the ancient Chinese religions.

The museums are filled with traditional works of art that date back for over 8,000 years.

But along side that very traditional Chinese culture is some of the most advanced twenty-first century technology. Taiwan is the world epicenter for the manufacturing of personal computers and cell phones.

It has one of the most advanced high speed rail systems.

It's the world leader in bicycle design and actually produces and exports more bikes than any other nation.

But a very interesting thing happens to a person who grows up in Taiwan with its mixture of ancient cultural values, and technological skills and then moves to the United States with its stress on creativity.


STEVE CHEN (ON CAMERA): Well you know I think that technology is actually changing so quickly it’s hard to imagine.

BURT WOLF: Steve Chen is a good example.

STEPHEN CHEN (ON CAMERA): I was born in Taiwan in 1978 and I came to America in 1986. I think there was just a cultural, a big cultural shift between growing up in Taipei, one of the busiest thriving cities in Taiwan to moving to the northwest suburbs of Chicago in which we, my brother, my parents formed the sort of only Asians in that sort of a 30 mile radius. 

For me first grade and second grade - going to school there, was a just a distinctive difference between the schooling system. The amount of sort of strictness that was forced on kids; the amount of sort of memorization that was put onto kids. And so a lot of that influence to me, the most memorable pieces were on the academic and schooling system in Taiwan as opposed to when I came to the U.S.

Not exactly a lack of structure, but a little bit more free formed, a little bit more through giving kids a little bit more liberty to explore things that they were interested in. 

BURT WOLF: Steve was interested in computers and programming and in 1999 he moved to California and took a job with PayPal.

STEVEN CHEN: All of us had these little digital cameras that we were taking pictures. But we were also taking some videos at the time. When we found out that night afterwards that the pictures were very easy to share. When it came to actually sharing these videos there was no way to share it. And we just thought well, there has to be a demand for a way to be able to upload, share these videos. 

BURT WOLF: Einstein said that imagination was more important than knowledge. And there was Steve imagining something that did not exist --- an essential element for great achievers. And what was Steve's achievement?

CHAD HURLEY (ON CAMERA): Today we have some exciting news for you, we have been acquired by google.

STEVE CHEN (ON CAMERA): Yea, thanks. Thanks to everyone of you guys that have been committed to you tube the community.

BURT WOLF: Steve and his partners were the founders of YouTube. A perfect blend of Taiwanese structure and American creativity. Steve is still in touch with his Asian roots and often returns to Taiwan.

STEVEN CHEN: I’m a big fan of tea. So there’s a lot of tea in Taiwan that’s particularly unique to Taiwan. And then the food, I think everybody goes back to Taiwan for the food. There’s sort of a thriving market for a lot of these small street side eateries that you can go to and you can experience all sorts of food.


BURT WOLF: One of the places that Steve suggested was the National Palace Museum. When I first visited the museum in the early 80s there were very few tourists. Today it is the most visited tourist sight in the nation. There are tourist from Europe, Africa, North and South America and hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists from the mainland who come over to see their artistic heritage.

The museum was built in Taipei, Taiwan by the government of the Republic of China in 1965. The architectural style is based on the traditional Chinese Palace --- four stories, green tiled –roofs with yellow ridges.

The primary objective was to protect and preserve over 650, 000 objects that represent 8,000 years of Chinese history.


BURT WOLF: Porcelain has always had an important place in Chinese art. During the middle of the 1700s a group of potters working for the emperor developed a technique for applying a brocade pattern to their works. The emperor loved it and the vases, bowls and jars became some of the most prized objects in the court.

This bell was commissioned by King Lu over 2,000 years ago. It was made to commemorate a military victory over a neighboring ruler formally known as prince who tried to invade Lu’s kingdom.

With the exception of portraits, most traditional Chinese art shows giant landscapes inhabited by tiny people. The artists wanted to illustrate the point that people are insignificant in comparison to nature and its forces.

The museum is an important destination for many tourists, but one of its primary objectives is to give young Taiwanese a sense of their artistic heritage --- to inspire an appreciation of Chinese art.

ANNOUNCER: The National Palace Museum in Taipei.

BURT WOLF: The museum even made an animated 3D film designed to make children aware of their artistic tradition.

ANIMATED BABY (ON CAMERA): Oh no, looks like they started.

ANIMATED DRAGON (ON CAMERA): You better get going.

BURT WOLF: The film features 50 of the museums most famous objects coming to life after the museum closes for the night.

ANNOUNCER: And discover the surprises hidden within.


BURT WOLF: The National Palace Museum was also a major influence on the work of Anna Hu. Anna is a jewelry designer who trained with some of the world’s great jewelers. Today, she has her own shop in New York City.

ANNA HU (ON CAMERA): This is really a journey from an original sketch.

BURT WOLF: Anna was born in Taiwan and came to the United States when she was fourteen years old. 

ANNA HU (ON CAMERA): My father was one of the oldest diamond dealers from Taiwan. So, instead of playing with teddy bears or Barbie’s, really, all I saw was pile of stone on a desk. So, while I was practicing piano and cello I got tired with my shoulder, so I would say, “Hey, Daddy,” He would be like, “Why don’t you do something by size, by color, sort it.”

ANNA HU: To me, it’s like composing music. I can achieve the perfection until the day I want. Instead of playing cello, we always worry about if our hands are too cold, if I’m too nervous, if I’m going to play out of tune, this, all these problems disappear. It’s this ultimate perfection that I always dreamed to achieve. 

ANNA HU (ON CAMERA): This is a necklace converted to be a tiara. If you look at the back, you have all the different connections and the joints. Later on it will become a tiara. 


BURT WOLF: Once again, blending Taiwanese and American culture produces a high level of creativity. Anna also demonstrates that the occupation you choose when you are young may not be the occupation that will express your greatest talent. Our genes interact with our environment and our life plan is redirected.


BURT WOLF: Considering the fact that most Chinese believe that cooking is one of the great art forms, if not the greatest, it’s only logical that Taiwan’s National Palace Museum would open a restaurant that preserves and presents Chinese gastronomy.

Its called the Silks Palace Restaurant and it’s housed in its own 5 story building just across the street from the Museum.

It’s decorated with antiques and works of art from the museum’s collection.

The main dining room offers a selection of traditional dishes from the eight great culinary regions of China.

But its real claim to fame is a series of dishes based on the most important works of art in the museum's collection.

This is the Jade Cabbage sculpture. It was treasured by the Emperors of China and kept in the Forbidden City. The central element is a bokchoy cabbage in jade --- a sign of purity.

The dish in the restaurant consists of the heart of a Chinese cabbage that’s been boiled in broth.

The Ching Dynasty Meat-Shaped Stone was carved from agate in the 1700s. The artist stained the top so it looks like a piece of cooked pork.

The restaurant’s version is made from stewed pig’s knuckle that has been carved into the shape of the work of art.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Nicholas, please eat your art.

NICHOLAS WOLF (ON CAMERA): But it tastes old.

BURT WOLF: (ON CAMERA): That’s a problem when something's ancient



BURT WOLF: In terms of ancient gastronomy China’s relationship to tea goes back for thousands of years. And these days one of the most knowledgeable people on the subject its Ellen Liu. 

ELLEN LIU (ON CAMERA): I always brew a cup of tea for myself in the morning.

BURT WOLF: Ellen was born in Taiwan and came to America when she was 22. Her husband is the Chairman of the TenRen Group which specializes in the highest quality tea and has over a hundred shops around the world. Today, their shop in New York City’s Chinatown is considered a landmark.

ELLEN LIU (ON CAMERA): Each tea, they have their own character. So, it's like a different fragrance, different color. I like oolong tea. Taiwan produces the world-famous oolong tea. That's from my hometown. That's my favorite.

I'm gonna show you, this is a green oolong, then I'm gonna show you one more kind it's a black oolong. This shows a green color. And this is a black oolong which you often get from Chinese restaurant.

This is called Tienlita, it's one type of a high mountain green oolong. It's grown in the center part of Taiwan. The elevation is about 1300 meters or above. In the high mountain, the sunlight in the daytime is short and it's colder weather temperature. So, that factor will make tea leaves and buds tender and produce a sweeter taste.

Brewing tea. One of the common culture in Taiwan is enjoying tea with the family or friend together. When you have a Chinese tea first we'll ask you to smell the aroma first.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Should I do that now?

ELLEN LIU (ON CAMERA): Yes please. And then you can sip for the flavor, that allows us to appreciate the flavor more. 



BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): It was difficult for Ellen to get her husband’s business started in New York, but she kept at it. And as the research is showing – just having a good idea is not enough. It must be accompanied by persistence. It’s the old line --- success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. And that is central to the Taiwanese attitude.


BURT WOLF: One good idea that has been accompanied by persistence is cross- strait tourism. The phrase ‘cross- strait’ is a reference to the body of water that separates mainland China from Taiwan. For many years it also separated millions of people with a common cultural tradition, but in 2008 things started to change.

The government of Taiwan began a series of programs designed to increase cooperation and links between Taiwan and the mainland. Mainland Chinese tour groups were invited to visit Taiwan. Each week, there are almost 500 direct flights between the mainland and Taiwan.

There are also 50 cargo flights as a result of the increased business between Taiwan and the mainland. Mainland China is probably the most natural area for Taiwanese investment.


BURT WOLF: The increase in general tourism and people traveling on business particularly from mainland China has had a direct effect on the nation’s hotels.

I have been visiting Taiwan since the 1980s and I have stayed in a number of interesting hotels.

Taipei's Grand hotel was built on a tree covered hill above the city. It opened in 1952 and quickly became a national landmark. The architectural style has been used for hundreds of years in the construction of strongholds in which the emperors lived.

At the opposite end of the historical spectrum is the modern Grand Hyatt Hotel which was built near Taipei 101, which is one of the tallest buildings in the world.


BURT WOLF: Because of the increase in cross-straits business travel some of the best business hotels in the world are in Taiwan.

Each year Travel + Leisure magazine publishes a list of the best hotels in the world. One of their categories is Best Business Hotel. I wondered what a “business hotel” meant.

I can spot a resort hotel. It’s on a beach ---- or in the country side. People are lying around a pool. There are lots of golf bags in the luggage area. And men with really bad legs are wearing shorts.

But once I’m in a city, I’m not sure what constitutes a business hotel. I’ve stayed in dozens of city hotels and I usually find a mix of guests. Some people are there as tourists, some are there to do business and some are in the Federal Witness Protection Program.

To get an idea of what it means to be a business hotel I asked Sharon Hsu. I met Sharon in 1995 in Taiwan when she was in the marketing department at the hotel where I stayed. Today she is Director of Marketing at Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza Hotel which Travel + Leisure listed as the second best business hotel in the world.

SHARON HSU (ON CAMERA): I think location is always the key criteria for businessmen to choose a hotel. A centralized location will have easy access for our guests to go to the office or wherever they are going.

BURT WOLF: A business hotel should offer all of the necessary services required of a person traveling on business. Free Hi-speed internet service in all rooms, the operative word here is free, free hi-speed service. Wi-Fi in all public areas. International newspapers first thing in the morning.

Business people like highly efficient service but they like it to be unobtrusive.

And unlike what happens with most resort hotels, business people return to the same hotel over and over again and they expect the hotel to remember their preferences. Which type of pillow does the guest like? What brand of water should be in their room refrigerator? Is there a particular table that they like in one of the restaurants? A good business hotel keeps a detailed history of their guest’s preferences.


BURT WOLF: Major hotels around the world have one or two good restaurants within their building, but Taiwan appears to believe that the more good restaurants in a hotel the better. And they are not designed just for the guests. These restaurants actually have as many local Taiwanese patrons as tourists. It’s a tribute to the quality of the food and the talent and creativity of the cooks. 

Eddie Liu is a perfect example. He’s a leading authority on Chinese food. The author of a number of books on the subject and he oversees a program that presents the classic dishes of China. 

Shanghainese cuisine is one of the world’s great gastronomic traditions and much of it is based on the seafood of the East China Sea. It’s also influenced by the rivers, lakes and the canals of the Yangtze Delta. Taiwan, being an island shares much of that tradition which has made it an outstanding place to sample Shanghainese dishes in their most traditional form.

Many classic Shanghiness recipes include the use of alcohol and are described as “drunken”. A perfect example is Drunken chicken.

The chefs of Taiwan also use the traditional combination of sugar and soy sauce to give a dish a sweet and sour flavor. You can always count me in for a dish of Deep fried pork with sweet and sour sauce.

The central point that I want to make about the cooking of Taiwan is that Taiwan is probably the best place in the world to sample all the great regional dishes developed by Chinese chefs during the past 5,000 years. And in addition, they have incorporated cuisines from other Asian traditions as well as the west. During the past 15 years Taipei has become one of the world’s gastronomic capitals.


BURT WOLF: Historically, the words we use to describe eating and romance are often the same: sweet, tender, hot, cool, luscious. Words that work for both forms of hunger. And so does a spot called The Marco Polo Lounge which is one of the most famous spots in Taiwan.

It has a knockout view of the city and is considered the ideal spot for a romantic encounter. The staff is especially trained to cater to the needs of the romantically inclined.

They have a series of specially designed couches where two people can set together and look at the view but no one can view them. Technically these could be described as love seats and they are often used for proposals of marriage.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): I proposed to my wife in a rather traditional way. I got down on my knees, presented a ring and asked her to marry me. She said yes and then she called room service to have somebody come and help me get up.


BURT WOLF: Steve Chen, Ellen Liu and Anna Hu, three people that grew up in Taiwan and came to the United States. Each one had a traditional Chinese childhood. Each was suddenly transported into a totally new culture. And each achieved a considerable amount of success. They wanted to get something done and they worked at it until they achieved it.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): What we are is the result interaction of our genes and the environment. The people I interviewed clearly show what can happen to a structured Taiwanese childhood when it's topped off by the creative energies of the United States.