Travels & Traditions: Taiwan - #501

BURT WOLF: The first Europeans to get a look at Taiwan were the Portuguese and as soon as they saw it they called it “The Beautiful Island” -- Ilha Formosa. In 1590 they arrived and set up a trading settlement on the north coast. The next Europeans to turn up were the Dutch who built their center on the southwest coast. The Spanish and the English also saw Taiwan as a great place to do business. So did the Emperors on Mainland China and Japan. Taiwan has always been open for business.


BURT WOLF: Most people spend their days working, which leaves their nights free for shopping. As a result, the cities of Taiwan have some of the world’s most interesting night markets. The vendors pay little rent which allows them to offer lower prices than traditional shops.

The markets sprawl out over dozens of streets, opening at 7 pm and going on until sun up. They offer lots of different things… clothing, shoes, watches and they are always jam-packed with vendors.

Chen Hong is the host of a popular local television program about food and my guide to the market.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Every time I come by here there’s a long line. What are they doing here?

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: Here we’re waiting for Pepper Cat.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Pepper Cat? Like a pussycat?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ok. That’s pork?

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: That’s pork mixed with peppers and then spring onion. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And they roll it in like a dough.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Every body loves it. It’s a big deal?

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: Yes. As a meal it’s very good.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And they cook it in like an Indian oven?

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: Yes. Very similar. But the smell is different.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Um. Very good taste.

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: You like it? 



BURT WOLF: What’s this?




BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That’s tomatoes too?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Fried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes and fried tomatoes.

What are these stones for? 


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Just for good luck?

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: Not good luck. For massage.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ahh. I feel better already.

BURT WOLF: What is she doing?

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: The fried tempura. Tempura is Japanese food. The Seafood to mix.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh yes. It’s like a puree of seafood.

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: Then she’ll fry it. 



BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And what are they cooking here?


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Shaboo Shaboo I know, ok.

I always remember that for 50 years Taiwan was controlled by the Japanese


BURT WOLF: So there’s a lot of Japanese influence there all the time.

CHEN HONG: Mixed yes.

BURT WOLF: A small candy store.

CHEN HONG: For tea

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh these are to make tea. What are these?



CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: Dried Roses. You can mix dried lemon and this.


CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: Ginger yes. You can try this one.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Um. I put this in the wine.




BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I didn’t say it right

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: Zheng Chang Jian Wei Bang Zhu Siao Hua

(translation: It will promote the health of your stomach and aid digestion)

Next I recommend this one. The seafood soup.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Seafood soup.

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: Yes seafood soup. This soup is very fresh. So today’s seafood to use the soup makes very fresh. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The stuff that’s here is this special night market food or do people eat it all the time?

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: Yes all the time.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: All the time.

CHEN HONG ON CAMERA: All the time.

In here we have 30 years ago already.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Would you make this food at home?




BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ok, very interesting.


BURT WOLF: Taipei is the capital city of Taiwan and one of the world’s major economic centers, which means that every major international retailer has a store. But there is very little point in buying something in Taipei that you can get in your hometown. You want to take advantage of what’s unique to the country.

For traditional Chinese items, you can visit Section One of Tihua Street. The shops carry all kinds of dried foods and Chinese herbs, equipment and crafts. This section of Taipei offers a nice contrast to the modern areas of the city. The buildings date from the late 1800s and often display architectural details that indicate what’s for sale inside. The ginseng roots surrounding the top window tell you this is an herbal shop.

If you’d like to take home something that is both very Chinese and unique, you can get yourself a chop. A chop is an essential piece of equipment in Chinese culture.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During my first visit to Taiwan, which was in the early 90s, I was given a Chinese name. They wanted it to sound like my English name, but also have special meaning. My last name became Wu, sounds like Wolf, but it’s associated with storytellers. And because I was a journalist they decided I was a storyteller. My first name became Boa Da. So Wu Boa Da is my name, and it’s close enough for government work. 

As soon as I got my name I got a chop which is a block of material with your name engraved in the base. You put it into a little read ink. And then you stamp it on whatever document needs your official signature. Pretty cool.

BURT WOLF: Name chops date back thousands of years to a time when most Chinese were illiterate and needed a simple form of identification. Even though today 93 percent of Taiwanese are literate, the tradition continues. Without a chop it is difficult to enter into a legally binding contract. It’s used for bank accounts, safe-deposit boxes, even land sales. Engravers work with many different materials—wood, plastic, stone, metal and jade.

You might also enjoy a visit to the weekend antique market. Every Saturday and Sunday hundreds of vendors set up small tables and offer their stuff. It’s virtually impossible to tell if you are looking at a rare and valuable object or just something that is being cleared out of somebody’s closet. Where’s the Antique Road Show guys when you need em? Anyway, there’s a lot of stuff here and all prices are subject to bargaining. You can always talk your way into a ten to thirty percent discount.

I was particularly interested in the jade area. Since the 11th century, the Chinese have worshiped the Jade Emperor. And when they started mining jade commercially in the 1700s, it became the country’s most precious stone. Jade is usually thought of as a green stone, but it is also found in white, red, yellow and lavender.

The most highly prized jade is a clear emerald-green and it comes in a variety of shapes. Jade in any form is worn for good luck.

Taiwan is also motor scooter heaven.

So many people here own motorbikes and motor scooters that you’ll find a wider selection of equipment in Taiwan than just about any other place else in the world.

TOURIST ON CAMERA: Taiwan makes lots of motorcycles and scooters. And they make lots of after market parts for your scooter or motorcycle. So, I came here to get some things to make my bike cool and different. I’m going to get a muffler. I’m going to get a cool iridescent windscreen. Maybe some lights and some metallic parts to put on the bike to make it original.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In my somewhat misspent youth I was a serious biker. Not quite in a class with the guys in the American Chopper television series, but I was heading there.

BURT WOLF: For a somewhat more refined shopping experience you can stop in to Artasia, a shop that carries fine Asian art and Antiques.

JOHN ANG ON CAMERA: This gallery is quite special in Taiwan in that it sells not just Chinese antiques, but antiques from all over Asia. So I have in my gallery Indian art, Indonesian art, Cambodian art, Burmese art, and even art from Africa. I think this is possible because the Taiwanese are very open minded to other cultures. Perhaps this is from their Japanese influence and perhaps because Taiwan is an island. They are very curious about other countries.


BURT WOLF: In the west we tend to think of the Chinese martial arts in the context of the Kungfu films like “Kill Bill” and “Hero”. But in fact, Kungfu means “time and energy spent in cultivating an art”.

A wood worker can have good Kungfu. So can a cook or a dressmaker. It’s all about developing a skill.

On any given morning, at the crack of dawn, you will see hundreds of Taiwanese practicing Tai Chi, which is probably the most popular of the martial arts. This is not about defending yourself against the evil master. It’s more about keeping your body and mind in good shape and defending yourself against the negative effects of aging.

A good place to study the martial arts is the Mei-Men Qigong cultural center where they teach the ancient art of lining up your body and mind with the way of nature.

LI FUNG SHAN ON CAMERA: The difference between Oigong and regular exercise is that Oigong works on breathing techniques. In Qigong, we cultivate our Oi, or breath, whereas regular exercise simply works on muscle development. Qi is the foundation of martial arts. It will first reduce the risk of injury, and therefore allow us to continue to excel in martial arts. Qi also enables us to grow stronger and stronger and bring more power and energy into martial arts. And no matter how old you are you can still practice Qi.

LOU DE XIU ON CAMERA: The big circle is like one integration of everything. Like your body movement, your power, your mind and sometimes you’ll find your body rhythm and become very peaceful and organized together so this way we can train you to become really the one, and trigger your body’s potential. Sometimes spiritual. Sometimes energy.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So it’s about a martial art and fighting. But it’s also about a sense of control of your own body and your ability to focus on things. 

LOU DE XIU ON CAMERA: Yes, yes. Because in Chinese every kind of things including martial art, we try to combine the Tao.

Sticky hands are one of Ba Gua Zhung high level training. They use the body to bring the temple, circle the temple and come out of the body the way the hands the width and they train you to be sensitive so two ways. One they used the arms and sensitive and circle and find the weakness in an opponent. The point where you can push him so he lose the.

BURT WOLF: Looking for the weak spot.

LOU DE XIU ON CAMERA: Yea. And lose their balance. And another thing sometimes you have no movement. The body movement will find a better. So hold the circle, become the one. So this is what we call the small circle, it includes the bigger circle.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Now you’ll show me sticky hands.

LOU DE XIU ON CAMERA: Sticky hands, stick your hand here. Yes. And then. No, no, no you must follow me. Because this one. One, I still come to you. This don’t come out yet. And then this one come out and connect. Yea, this one. And then when I do this one, if you too fast I catch you because of your ankle. So this one.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh two hands. No, I’ll never be able to do this. Wait I’ll show you something really good. Put your hands up. Ok ready? Go like that. Ok now like that. 

LOU DE XIU ON CAMERA: Ok that’s ok.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We’ve exchanged valuable information.

BURT WOLF: The secrets of the Chinese martial arts have been handed down from master to student for thousands of years. They believe that health and longevity are the true goals of the martial arts. They also point out that the martial arts can be used to protect you from dangerous enemies, but the man whose internal powers are strong normally never has to fight. His power is so evident that no one dares challenge him.


BURT WOLF: Traditional Chinese medicine believes that a good doctor should first try to cure an illness with food. Only when that fails should medicine be prescribed.

Years ago, families retained a family doctor who would be paid a monthly fee and make regular visits to the family. When someone fell ill, the doctor was held responsible. Gary Lin is a doctor of traditional Chinese Medicine.

GARY LIN ON CAMERA: We judge a person’s body health by four situations. At first we will check how do they look? Like color of face and looking the situation above his tongue you see the tongue is just like a meter of your body’s health. And second we will listen and smell. And the third we will ask some questions of you to check what is going on. First question is when do you go to sleep?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When do I go to bed? Ten o’clock. Ten, ten thirty.

GARY LIN ON CAMERA: Ten, ten thirty. And when do you wake up?


GARY LIN ON CAMERA: Six o’clock. Ok. Fourth step is to check the pulse. Doctor will use three fingers on each wrist of patient. And every single finger has specific meaning equal to heart, liver and so on. Now I will make a brief conclusion about your body situation. I think you have something problem with your kidney. Just because the color of your face look a little dark. Your liver is just ok. Your kidney pulse becomes upper, it’s decreasing now, so it means you work too much. And you maybe need more good rest. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Are you guys all paying attention to that? The doctor said too much work ok. I’ll see ya. 



BURT WOLF: For thousands of years, the artists of China have focused on how people relate to nature. And it’s still an important theme for contemporary artists in Taiwan. The work of the Cloud Gate Dance Theater is a perfect example.

Cloud Gate is the name of a 5,000 year old ritual dance. It is the oldest known dance in China. In 1973, it became the name of the first contemporary dance company in any Chinese speaking community. The company is made up of two-dozen dancers who are trained in Tai chi, meditation, marital arts, Chinese Opera, modern dance and ballet.

The first time I saw the Cloud Gate Dance Troupe they were at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City. The performance was extraordinary and ever since then I have been a devoted fan of their work.


BURT WOLF: Hand puppet shows have been part of traditional Chinese entertainment for hundreds of years. Puppet masters, using their unique multiple-voice talent, enacted complex legends. Tales of chivalry, passion, and humor were brought to life.

These days, the Huang family not only carries on the tradition but has also used modern technology to advance the art. In 2000, with a budget of over a million dollars, they produced “The legend of the Sacred Stone” a movie that gave the world a glimpse into the infinite possibilities of the puppet show. They also attracted young audiences by introducing stories that use Kungfu sequences and characters that travel through space and time. They even have their own television channel. Once again, an interesting blend of ancient Chinese content with modern technology. 


BURT WOLF: The traditional Chinese calendar is based on the movement of the moon. The fifth day of the fifth lunar month which usually falls during the western months of June or July is the date of the Dragon Boat Festival.

BURT WOLF TO CAMERA: The festival comes with a magnificent story. In the year 300 AD there was a great poet much beloved by the people. Who was also an advisor to an Emperor who was not so much beloved by the people. He got so fed up with the incompetence of the government that he took a big rock, held it tight to his chest and jumped into the river. People rushed to the river to try and save him but it was too late. Then they tried to find his remains to give him a proper burial, but they couldn’t. In order to keep the sea creatures from eating what was left of him, they began to throw rice into the river hoping the fish would eat the rice rather than their beloved poet.

BURT WOLF: The anniversary of the event was marked by throwing rice into the river. But after about two hundred years the ghost of the poet showed up, expressed his appreciation for the annual offerings of rice but pointed out that very often the rice was stolen by the monster that caused floods.

The ghost asked that the rice be wrapped in leaves and tied with string. It seems that leaves and string, both of which are high in carbohydrates, were not on the flood monster’s diet. Since then, eating dumplings filled with glutinous rice and wrapped in bamboo leaves have been part of the festival.

The dragon boat races commemorate the search to save the great poet. They also demonstrate the Chinese devotion to cooperation and teamwork.

Dragonheads and tails are on the boats. Taoist priests bring them to life with incense and firecrackers. Each boat has a helmsman, a drummer, twenty-two oarsmen and a flag catcher. Teams come from all over the world to take part in these races. A process of elimination produces a winner.

There are over a dozen important ritual holidays in Taiwan and they fall throughout the year. So no matter when you are visiting some festival will be going on.

A festival designed to enhance your well being and drive off evil spirits. For TRAVELS & TRADITIONS, I’m Burt Wolf.