Travels & Traditions: Taiwan, Nurture vs Nature Part 2 - #1107

BURT WOLF: A while back I read a book titled The Genius In All Of Us. It summarized a lot of research and concluded that people who are very successful are not born with a set of rare genes that make them great. Success is usually the result of the interaction of your genes with your environment--- plus relentless dedication and faith in your ability to succeed. It also pointed out that stressing your mind like stressing a muscle will cause a biological change that improves performance. Most of us live with a considerable amount of stress. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): This program looks at what happens to you when you grow up in one cultural environment and are suddenly put under an enormous amount of stress by moving to a new one. It focuses on a group of Taiwanese who grew up in a traditional Chinese culture and then suddenly moved to the United States and what that move did to them.

BURT WOLF: I talked to Chen Ming Wong who came from Taiwan and once played baseball for the New York Yankees.

Doctor Henry Lee one of the world’s most famous forensic scientists. He had become the youngest captain in the Taiwanese police force when he decided to move to New York.

Steve Chen the cofounder of YouTube who came to Chicago when he was a child and then moved to California because he loved computers and internet technology. I was particularly interested in what they liked about Taiwanese culture, how they thought it affected them and what they did when they went back to Taiwan for a visit.


JUSTIN LIN (ON CAMERA): I feel like action a lot of times people take it for granted, I try to break it down into dramatic beats.

BURT WOLF: The first person I talked to was Justin Lin. Justin was born in Taiwan in 1973 and moved to Orange County, California when he was eight years old.

JUSTIN LIN (ON CAMERA): Being an immigrant Asian American kid and understanding or at least being exposed to the concept of underdog was such a strong thing for me. And it made me feel like I can go and do anything.

BURT WOLF: Justin became a director and one of the most accomplished and promising young film makers in Hollywood. 

ACTOR (ON CAMERA): Welcome, to the Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift.

BURT WOLF: He directed The Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift, Fast and Furious Four, Finishing the Game and Better Luck Tomorrow. 

Justin gives considerable credit to his Taiwanese background.

JUSTIN LIN: That route and those choices. I think being an immigrant, that is the strength of it


JUSTIN LIN (ON CAMERA): My first film, I you know, I didn't know anybody, so I took ten credit cards and I made it for 250,000 and it went to Sundance and got bought by Paramount and everything and changed my life. 

JUSTIN LIN: And then my next film was $25 million budget. So you're going I'm spending my whole budget on my last film before lunch on this one, and it goes from $25 million to $100 million movie, so you know you figure out as you go, I think at the end of the day you are still trying to tell a story. Now you have more tools and more toys to play with.

I do have a lot of memories great memories of Taiwan. 

JUSTIN LIN (ON CAMERA): And I went back to Taiwan with my first independent film for a film festival 25 years later. And I remember when I landed, it obviously changed a lot. 

JUSTIN LINYou know? But as soon as I took the first bite of food, all these memories just popped back in.

Anything gooey I miss.

I miss stinky tofu a lot, and it's usually just I can't drag anyone to with me to go. Last time, I went back for the premiere of "Fast and Furious," and so the studio's doing it up, and they're taking us to all these nice restaurants. And finally I snuck out for three hours. And I'm not kidding. I had about eight meals in three hours. 

I love just exploring and just walking you know, that's the thing that I really enjoy about Taiwan. 

I love just getting lost. I pride myself in finding a little hole in the wall. And I actually I was able to go back and find it. And it was a little dumpling place where everyone would just go eat at lunchtime. And it was amazing. You get like 12 dumplings for like 50 cents.

I love exploring and finding and kind of going with your gut and finding where locals go. 

I love the street carts, and I remember when I was a little kid, my Dad would take me and we would go find little street carts for beef noodle and stuff like that. So you know, I'm partial to that kind of eating.


BURT WOLF: Justin suggested that I get out into the country side and do a little biking, which makes sense. Taiwan has a number of unspoiled national parks and bike paths that runs from one end of the country to the other. It also has the world’s biggest manufacturer of bicycles.

In 1972, a young Taiwanese named King Liu began manufacturing bicycles. Even though he built the bikes they carried the brand names of the companies that sold them to the public--- Schwinn and Nishiki were the most famous.

TONY LO (ON CAMERA): You have a nice bag you can put on here and just carry with you.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Oh that’s clever show me how that works.

BURT WOLF: Tony Lo is the company’s Chef Executive Officer:

TONY LO: Actually we have been making all kinds of bicycles for all different kinds of people. We focus on quality, but secondly we really make use of the technology and try to make a breakthrough on bicycles.

TONY LO (ON CAMERA): In the past the bicycles was either for just mobility, transportation or for people to compete on. But actually for most people to enjoy bicycles, bicycles need to be very light, very strong and functional, to be very good.

BURT WOLF: In 1981, Giant decided to start selling their bikes under their own name. Today Giant is the largest bicycle maker in the world. They make over 5 million bikes a year which are sold in over 10,000 stores in 50 countries. 

TONY LO: We are lucky, lucky because Taiwan is a small country, so we have all kinds of industry.

We have all kinds of materials, we have all kinds of technology. And when you are small a lot of brands go around. Therefore things go very fast here. We have to work with the German company, the Swiss company, the US company, the Japanese company, but finally we are the ones to bring everything in one place and made it happen. So actually Taiwan is small but this small actually becomes kind of an advantage to integrate all the technology and to make things happen.

BURT WOLF: The fact that Taiwan is not a sprawling giant is a distinct advantage in the development and integration of the nations industries but it is also a benefit for tourists. You can see the entire country in a short time.


BURT WOLF: Everyone I spoke to about the performing arts in Taiwan recommended the Cloud Gate Dance Company. It was founded in 1970 and immediately became an important part of Taiwan’s creative community. Cloud Gate blended Asian mythology and folklore into modern dance with constant references to tai chi, meditation and the martial arts. The company spends most of its time performing throughout Taiwan. But from time to time they perform in Europe and the Americas. I first saw them in New York. The founder and creative force behind Cloud Gate is Lin Hwai-min.

LIN HWAI-MIN: Cloud Gate is the oldest known Chinese dance. And we took this historical name as the name of our modern dance company.

LIN HWAI-MIN (ON CAMERA): Founded in 1973. Thinking that we would like to draw inspirations from our own culture to create something that is contemporary.

LIN HWAI-MIN: Most of the time I ask them to improvise because their bodies are so rich, they are multi-lingual. And I find something from the material and create it in and modern, well creating

is like an adventure into the jungle. You hear the calling and then on the other end of the jungle and you have to find your way to go there.

So now a days I live in Taipei, I tour around the world, but Taipei is a fascinating city. You have the influences of different cultures. Well I think nowadays we have our espresso at Starbucks but still we love our tea that takes time to make. Even longer time to sip, so we can have both.

They should take the subway and get to meet the people, the people in Taiwan are very nice. We have journalists from China and they write me that even before I leave the country I am already homesick about Taipei. This doesn't look like any Chinese city.

Cloud Gate performs in this theater and has 3 outdoor performances each year. About four each year. That would attract about 50-60 thousand people in different cities of Taiwan, and we tour around the world with works inspired by our own culture but in contemporary forms.

LIN HWAI-MIN (ON CAMERA): I think People should come to Taiwan they will find something very fascinating.


BURT WOLF: For centuries the rugged mountain range that runs down the center of Taiwan pushed the population centers to the western shores of the island.

As the population and economic activity increased, transportation along this north-south corridor became more and more congested.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): I have a distinct and painful memory of setting out to drive to a town about 50 miles south of Taipei. I had a map and it showed an expressway and it looked like I could knock it off in about an hour.

BURT WOLF: What my map did not show was the fact that there was nothing express about the expressway. It was more like the nation’s longest parking lot. After three hours of getting nowhere, I just turned back. Apparently, this was life in the fast lane for everyone in Taiwan.

To solve the problem, the government developed Taiwan High Speed Rail. The stations are modern, clean and highly efficient. The yellow lights in the floor tell you that the train is arriving or departing

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): They offer both standard and business class. In business class the seats are a little bit wider, they have a radio entertainment systems, and electronic plug-in system for all your portable electronics.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome aboard Taiwan High Speed Rail.

BURT WOLF: The announcements and the signs are in Chinese and English.

ANNOUNCER: (In Chinese)

BURT WOLF: And to say that the cleaning staff runs with military precision would be an understatement. .

The Taiwan High Speed Rail is based on the technology used by the Japanese bullet train. The line runs from north to south for just over two hundred miles and has a top speed of about 190 miles per hour. It will take you from one end of the island to the other in 90 minutes instead of four and half hours. The train makes it possible for people living in Taipei to commute to the South for work, and vice versa. The total cost for the project was15 billion dollars which made it the largest privately funded transportation project of the time.

And, it's environmentally responsible. The New York Times reported that a passenger traveling on a fully loaded train will use a sixth of the energy that they would use if they drove alone in a car and release only one-ninth as much carbon dioxide gas.

The high-speed trains have successfully out-competed planes. Domestic air travel has fallen by almost half. And there was a similar drop in long distance bus travel.


BURT WOLF: Dr. Lee suggested a visit to the Taipei Electronics Market. The market started as a gathering spot for antique dealers offering old books and toys. Today it is a market for the latest electronic and computer products. There are things here that won’t go to North America and Europe for months. And some of the stuff will never be offered outside of Asia.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): There are 6000 letters in the Chinese alphabet, how do you use a computer keyboard?

ISABEL CHEN (ON CAMERA): Actually there are more than 5 ways to enter Chinese in the computer, and one of the most common ways is Phonetic, which I'm using right now. Let me show you. Basically you just hit the keys with the right symbols of pronunciation and then they can combine into one correct Chinese character.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Give me She She ne.


BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): It means thank you, how many keystrokes did that take you?

ISABEL CHEN (ON CAMERA): Eleven in total

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): That's pretty cool. Can you put it into English?

ISABEL CHEN (ON CAMERA): Of course. I just need to switch to English here and then I can enter thank you.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): That's pretty impressive.


BURT WOLF: Another recommendation from the people I interviewed was the National Center for the Traditional Arts. The part I liked best was a row of buildings constructed in a traditional style. I have seen streets like this all over Taiwan. There is a shop on the street floor and the family that operates the shop lives upstairs. The shops at the National Center for Traditional Arts are occupied by artisans practicing traditional crafts.

This shop specializes in objects made from bamboo. Unlike the wood that comes from tress that take decades to grow, bamboo is a grass that is harvested every 18 months. It is an ideal sustainable material. The artisans who operate this shop make bamboo bowls, and chopsticks, teacups, cutting boards, and vases. Very time-honored stuff

But they are also very busy keeping up with the needs of their 21st century customers

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Ancient Chinese bamboo holder for I-Phone. Confucius would have loved this, and that is a USB, also, 8000 years old if it's a day.

BURT WOLF: The shop across the street makes old fashion Chinese candy.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Sesame. Peanuts and sesame, very good.

BURT WOLF: This shop makes wooden sandals. And they cut the straps to fit while you wait.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Left right left right

BURT WOLF: They also make a model designed to teach intergroup coordination.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): We’re stopping now. Shop! Ok. This is an ancient Chinese technique for teaching coordination amongst a group of 3 people, and boy do we need that teaching. OK, lets go and right, right, right this is your right. OK 1 2 3 go, right left right left right left were never gonna make it back to the hotel.

BURT WOLF: And everyday there are street performances based on age old folktales.


BURT WOLF: As I traveled around Taiwan, one of the first things I noticed was the number of Temples. There are over 10,000 places of worship in Taiwan and the dominant form is a folk religion that blends elements of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian philosophy.

Chinese folk religion maintains that the human world and the supernatural world exist side by side and are in constant contact. They also believe that it is the responsibility of humans to send things to the inhabitants of the supernatural world in the form of offerings.

The most common offering is food. And what kind of food is being offered can tell you a lot about the relationship between the person making the offering and the being in the supernatural world that it’s being sent to. If the food is ready to eat it is probably being offered to a relative or a friend and was something that that dearly departed liked during his or her earthly existence.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): If you are making an offering to a really important god the food will be totally unprocessed – a raw chicken, a vegetable pulled out of the ground with its roots on. The idea is to show the distance between you and the deity. The god does not need your help to feed himself.

BURT WOLF: And the gods are very practical. They don’t actually eat the food. They just inhale the essence. The food rests on the offering table for a while and then it’s either picked up by the person who brought it here, taken home and eaten or distributed to the poor by the monks. It’s a win- win for everybody.

Some people come in to the temple to get advice. The equipment used for soliciting guidance from the gods is a set of crescent divining blocks. You ask your question and drop the blocks on the floor. If they land with one round side up and one flat side up the answer to your question is “yes”. If they land with both round sides up the answer is “no”. If they land with both flat sides up it means that all of the deities are busy assisting other worshipers and you should try again later.


BURT WOLF: Like the residents of most major industrialized nations, the people of Taiwan do most of their shopping in modern supermarkets. But like Paris and Rome alongside the supermarkets in Taipei there are traditional street markets. In many cases, the families of the vendors have been in the same spot for generations.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): That’s a hot pepper and it's used in the cooking of Szechuan and Hunan dishes bit it's not indigenous to China. They were actually brought her by the Portuguese traders who picked them up on the pacific islands.

BURT WOLF: This noodle maker has been here as far back as anyone can remember. There’s a variety of different shapes with different ingredients and they are made fresh every morning.

Chinese noodle making got started in the Han Dynasty which ran from about 200 BC to 200 AD. Cooks had mastered the technique of grinding wheat into flour and mixing it with water to produce noodle dough. Cutting the dough into strips makes the noodles cook faster and therefore use less heating fuel. It’s the most basic of foods and cooking techniques and you’ll find it in one form or another in every culture that developed flour.


JUSTIN LIN (ON CAMERA): So as you can see some of this is still pretty raw.

BURT WOLF: Justin Lin making movies in Los Angeles.

TONY LO (ON CAMERA): Now this is one of our very popular models.

BURT WOLF: Tony Lo running the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer.

LIN HWAI-MIN: There are many forms of folk dance in China.

BURT WOLF: Lin Hwai-Min developing the Cloud Gate Dance Company.

The engineers who designed Taiwan’s High Speed Rail system.

The extraordinary programmers who got 5,000 ancient Chinese words onto a modern computer keyboard.

In each case you have people who grew up in the traditional Chinese culture of Taiwan and where challenged by moving and working in a very different environment.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): What we are is the result of the interaction between our genes and our environment. The people I interviewed are a clear example of what can happen when a structured Taiwanese childhood is topped off by the creative energy of the United States.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.