Travels & Traditions: Taiwan, A Sense of Place 1 - #709

BURT WOLF: From the very beginning of our history America has been populated by people who came here from somewhere else. We tend to focus on the immigrants who came here from Europe during the late 1800s and early 1900s but even the Native Americans who were here when the first Europeans showed up had originally immigrated to America from Asia.

During the 1800s mainland China was in total chaos. Thousands of Chinese left their homeland in search of their golden opportunity which they believed was buried in the mountains just outside of San Francisco.

The earliest Chinese workers to arrive at the time of the California Gold Rush, did the toughest jobs for the least money. When the gold rush came to an end the Silver Rush started and they were back in the mines again. And when the silver petered out they went to work building the railroads. And when the railroads were finished they built the California vineyards. 

Asian immigration has continued. And today some of the most interesting people coming to the United States are coming from Taiwan. Chien-Ming Wang, who is pitching for the New York Yankees. Dr. Henry Lee, one of the world’s most famous forensic scientists who is with the Connecticut State Police. Fang-Yi Sheu, a star with the Martha Graham dance company in New York and The Cloud Gate Dance Company in Taiwan. Dr. David Ho, one of the world's leading researchers on the prevention and cure of AIDS. Walter Wang, a successful manufacturer and philanthropist. And Michael Tong who introduced the first elegant Chinese Restaurant in America.

Taiwanese students are attending major technical universities in the United States and many have graduated into positions in Silicon Valley. Jerry Yang, one of the founders of Yahoo, is a perfect example.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Hi, how are you doing….

BURT WOLF: I have been a frequent visitor to their homeland of Taiwan and I was curious to find out what they would recommend for my next visit. I asked and this program is the result of their suggestions.


CHIEN-MING WANG ON CAMERA: I think the scenery in Taiwan's eastern rift valley, especially the national Taroko Park, is awesome.

DR. DAVID HO ON CAMERA: In Hualien, you could you could go inland into the Taroko Gorge and that scenery is very special. And rather unique to Taiwan. And I think every visitor who is going to spend some time some time in Taiwan should go visit that spot.

DR. HENRY LEE ON CAMERA: I like to see the countryside. I like to see the nature beauty. I like to see the people, how they live. I want to talk to the farmer and to learn their life, and to share their life experience with me.

BURT WOLF: About four million years ago, the tectonic plate under Asia, bumped into the tectonic plate under the Philippines. One result was the Central Mountain Range that forms the backbone of Taiwan. Giant sheets of marble were forced upward and weathered by thousands of years of wind and rain.

Today the area is known as the Taroko National Park and it’s the best place to see the pristine natural beauty of the island. The park is filled with mountains, valleys, gorges, fast flowing rivers and waterfalls.

The Central Cross Island Highway winds its way through the park and offers visitors some spectacular views of the landscape. A river cuts through the marble mountains creating one of the world’s most interesting locations for white-water rafting.

About twenty percent of Taiwan has been reserved as national park land and protected against development. It's an extraordinary opportunity to see what this part of the world was like when it was still under the control of ancient tribes. 


BURT WOLF: An hour’s drive south of Taipei in a narrow valley surrounded by steep hills is the small town of Wulai. Before the connecting roads were built it was not an easy place to get to which helped protect its natural beauty. The Wulai waterfalls spill down for over 260 feet.

And if you’re into extreme sports you can take the Wulai Cable Car to the top of the cliffs. It rises to a height of 80 meters above the river which makes it the highest cable ride in Taiwan.

But Wulai is even more well-known for its hot spring waters that gush up from beneath the mountains. It comes out at 85 degrees Farenheit. It’s colorless, odorless and contains large amounts of iron. Tourists and locals bathe at the open-air spring at the banks of the river. The spring water gives your skin a very pleasant smoothness.

FANG-YI SHEU ON CAMERA: I think it’s the water helps me a lot. Just release my back, my neck. I have nothing to do that’s the only place I go. Some how that place makes me calm. Yea.

BURT WOLF: Thousands of years ago the springs of Taiwan attracted native tribes to the area. And today the town is a virtual hot bed of hot spring inns, each receiving a supply of warm water directly from the hot spring.

On the surface it can look like a sleepy little town. But they have balanced out the local economy with a street of shops selling souvenirs and snacks and the local rice wine.

Wulai is also home to a very special spa called Pause Landis. The spa has a series of private bathing rooms where the hot water comes directly from the hot springs. All of the rooms look out on the tranquil beauty of the valley. And each has a different interior design.

In this room the hot spring water passes over a solid gold basin from which the water absorbs a heavy dose of good luck which is then passed into your body while you soak. Then there is the waterfall room.

My favorite was the hot pot room which has three oversized cast iron pots in which the water is kept warm while you relax.


BURT WOLF: Taipei’s Grand Hotel is run by a non-profit foundation dedicated to the preservation of traditional Chinese culture. The architecture is traditional. The furniture is traditional. Even the restaurants are traditional. And in Taiwan, that means Dim Sum.

DR. HENRY LEE ON CAMERA: Now Cantonese Dim Sum is so famous. I want the small, steam bun with crab meat in there and so those are the stuff I like. 

BURT WOLF: Dim Sum means “touch your heart” and it was originally developed by chefs during the Sung Dynasty which got started in the 10th century and ran for 300 years. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Two thousand different dishes have evolved since Dim Sum was first introduced. And though it was originally designed as a snack to be served in Tea Houses, these days it’s become the basis of a full meal.

CATHERINE FAN ON CAMERA: Here at the Grand Hotel we have prepared two kinds of delicacies. One is from Northern China and the other one is from Southern China. 

CATHERINE FAN: The Northern part includes pork fried icy dumplings, ribbon rice cake, pork bun, seafood dumplings, and the shrimp and Chinese chives dumpling. 

And the Southern park includes vegetarian dumpling, taro cake, pork chow mei, fish dumpling, and the shrimp dumpling.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: There's really nothing more important in Chinese culture than food. In fact, one of the ways you ask someone how they are is Tsa Fon La Mao which means “Have you eaten? The theory being that if you’ve eaten you're okay.


BURT WOLF: Hand puppetry is one of the most authentically Taiwanese traditions. It’s even performed in the Taiwanese language instead of Mandarin. And it’s been around since the 1600s.

DR. DAVID HO ON CAMERA: The Taiwan puppets are very well-known. They are enjoyed by kids in the previous generation much more than today. I also think that's very unique to Taiwan. It's quite special. 

BURT WOLF: Taiwanese puppets consist of two parts – a hollow wooden head and a hollow body made of cloth. The puppet master puts his hand inside the puppet and uses his entire hand to mimic the natural movements of people.

WALTER WANG ON CAMERA: Usually, a kung fu puppet series. It's multiple series, like a soap opera if you will. It has a full-length story, and it has a bunch of stories, has a hero. And it's about kung fu fighting, and it gets kids very interested and excited. 

BURT WOLF: It’s a little like Pinocchio meets Bruce Lee. Hand puppet shows are still a very popular form of street entertainment with puppet masters reciting poems, singing traditional songs and using sound effects. They’ve even begun using lasers, dry ice and anything else that promises to increase the size and attention span of the audience.


BURT WOLF: Another area in which Taiwan is balancing ancient traditions with modern technology is fashion. Shiatzy Chen is one of Taiwan's most successful designer labels. 

FANG-YI SHEU ON CAMERA: I love their clothes. I mean they’ve got a style. And they have a lot of great designs. It can be very formal and you know can be casual too. But once you wear her clothes, I feel like, yea I’ve got a style. I love Shiatzy.

BURT WOLF: The brand got started in 1978. And their objective was to develop a line of high quality, stylish clothing for women which they described as “neo-Chinese chic". In 1987 they introduced a line for men.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Now you might think that these sleeves are a bit too long. But it is the Ancient Mandarin style and it tells everybody that you are much too rich to work with your hands.

BURT WOLF: Shiatzy Chen has done a considerable amount of research on traditional Chinese dressmaking and has incorporated that knowledge into their work.


FANG-YI SHEU ON CAMERA: Jade Market is a great place to shop.

BURT WOLF: For over a thousand years, the Chinese have worshiped the Jade Emperor. And when they started mining jade in the 1700s it became the country’s most precious stone. It's beautiful but it's also tough.

Every weekend hundreds of vendors who specialize in Jade come to Taipei and set up a market that’s open to everyone. There are new pieces, antique pieces and polished stones. There are pieces that sell for thousands of dollars and pieces that sell for just a few bucks. They say that jade can reflect the wearer's way of life, with the color becoming more intense with age and literally polished by the owner's skin. 

Fang-Yi’s suggestion to visit the jade market is much appreciated, especially by my grand-daughter.


BURT WOLF: The restaurant is called The Slack Season and it has an almost mythic place in the gastronomic history of Taiwan. 

Mr. Hang Saw Hang is the fourth generation in the business. And there will probably be a Hang in this restaurant for many generations to come. His great, great, great, grandfather is credited with developing the basic recipe for Tainan Noodle Soup which is one of the most traditional of Taiwanese dishes.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The story of Tainan Noodles goes like this---Hang’s ancestor was a fisherman, but because of the typhoons that came through in August and September he didn’t have very much fish it was kind of a Slack Season. So he developed a soup made from noodles and shrimp and pork which he sold from a stand. It’s kind of Taiwan’s answer to Spaghetti Bolognese.

BURT WOLF: And today it’s a national favorite.


BURT WOLF: Taiwan is one of the most religiously tolerant nations in the world. At last count over 25 different religions were recognized by the government, which means that they met the requirements for a minimum number of local members, and sufficient money to carry out their mission.

There are over 23,000 places of worship on the island, including 8,600 Taoist temples, 4,000 Buddhist temples, 3,600 Protestant churches and 1,100 Catholic churches. You will also find Jewish Synagogues, Confucian monasteries and Islamic mosques.

Almost all of the monasteries and temples are open to the public and welcome both worshipers and visitors. The most interesting are the folk temples that combine Buddhism and Taoism with an assortment of gods that specialize in specific areas.

The most popular folk deity in Taiwan is Matzu, patron saint of seafarers. Her dark blue face makes her easy to recognize. And she's always accompanied by two giant statues with huge ears and eyes. One is known as Eyes That See a Thousand Miles and the other is Ears That Hear On The Wind.

The legend of Matzu tells of the daughter of a fisherman who was born about a thousand years ago. One night she had a dream that her father’s boat was caught in a typhoon and sinking. In the dream she tried to save her father and her brothers who were on board. When she woke up she found out that there had been a typhoon and that by some miracle her brothers were saved, but not her father. She spent the rest of her life using her special powers to save people. Over the years her benevolence has extended to all in need and her followers are in the millions.


DR. DAVID HO ON CAMERA: I visited many museums on the mainland, and in terms of the collection none will compare to that held in the National Museum in Taipei.

MICHAEL TONG ON CAMERA: They are the world's largest collection of the priceless Chinese treasuries and I mean for art field.

WALTER WANG ON CAMERA: The National Museum is a place that almost all visitors in Taiwan must go. It has a lot of Chinese antiques that visitors would not be able to see in the rest part of the world. Even in China or in Mandarin Museum, you won't be able to see those exhibitions that you can see in the National Museum of Taiwan. 

BURT WOLF: The National Palace Museum in Taipei opened in 1965 and holds over 700,000 works. It is the largest collection of Chinese art in the world, representing over 5,000 years of the most important arts and crafts.

When the Japanese attacked China in 1931, the greatest works of Chinese art were loaded into thousands of crates and for 16 years secretly moved around so the Japanese wouldn’t find them.

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945 and civil war broke out in China 4,800 crates of the most valuable works were shipped to Taiwan for safekeeping. And all through the following years of turmoil not a single work was ever lost or damaged.

There are 4,400 ancient bronzes, 24,000 pieces of porcelain, 13,000 paintings, 14,000 works of calligraphy, 4,600 pieces of jade and 153,000 palace records. Today, most of the collection is held in storage rooms that were dug out of a mountain behind the museum. The objects are periodically rotated but it would take 12 years of regular visits to get through all the rotations and see the entire collection.


DR. HENRY LEE ON CAMERA: For the tourist, if they just stay in a 5-star hotel, eating hotel meal, you only see part of the country. You should go to where other people, living, eating and touring, and learn and experience their culture.

BURT WOLF: Three hours south of Taipei, in the foothills of the Central Mountain Range, is Sun Moon Lake, the largest natural lake in Taiwan.

FANG-YI SHEU ON CAMERA: I love Sun Moon Lake because it just makes me feel like, oh my God, this is an amazing place. I feel like oh my God this whole view is like a beautiful woman. Very classic.

BURT WOLF: It got its celestial name because of its shape. The Eastern part of the lake is round like the sun, while the Western part is shaped like a crescent moon hence the name Sun Moon Lake.

Legend has it that the lake was discovered when the ancestors of the Shao tribe stumbled upon it while they were out deer hunting. They found it so beautiful that they moved their entire clan to its shores. 

These days there are only 300 people in the Shao tribe but they still live in their favorite neighborhood and they have exclusive rights to the best block—a sacred island in the center of the lake that serves as their private sanctuary.

Even though the island is accessible only to the tribe, the rest of us have plenty to do. Fishing, boating, eating, and lots of hiking. Seven different trails wind through tea farms, conifer forests, aboriginal villages and a waterfowl sanctuary.


BURT WOLF: Most people in Taiwan spend their days working and end up with very little time to shop, but the merchants of Taiwan have solved that problem by opening up night markets. Each town has their own version and the larger cities have dozens of them. They open about 7 pm, close at sunup and spread out over several blocks.

Each market has a slightly different set of vendors but in general they offer clothing, shoes, local inventions and lots of street food.

Originally they were serious shopping areas designed to meet the needs of hard working families, but today they are more about atmosphere and fun. Rosa Hsu, a resident of Taipei and friend of mine for many years, took me to have my fortune read.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ah, a fortune teller, well, let's have our fortune told.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What is she saying?

ROSA HSU ON CAMERA: You don’t want to know.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What is she saying now?

ROSA HSU ON CAMERA: You don’t want to know.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I want to know.

ROSA HSU ON CAMERA: No, you don’t want to know.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I don’t want to know.

ROSA HSU ON CAMERA: She said that the program will be finished in five seconds. Quick!

BURT TO CAMERA: For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf. That was fast.