Travels & Traditions: Taiwan, A Sense of Place 2 - #710

BURT WOLF: The island nation of Taiwan is an extraordinary combination of ancient Chinese culture and the most modern aspects of Western society.

Its 23 million inhabitants live with two calendars. Business runs on the standard Gregorian calendar used in all western nations.

But family life is based on the Lunar calendar which has controlled Asia for thousands of years.

The Taiwanese have carefully preserved the traditional arts and crafts of China. Everyone still has a chop that is used for signing documents. It’s a name stamp that dates back to the time when most people could not read or write.

The document being sealed with the chop can be a traditional wedding license or a contract for the construction of a high-rise condominium.

There are mountains where tea is cultivated with the same ancient techniques that have been used for thousands of years

And there are modern facilities that have made Taiwan a world leader in the manufacture of computer chips, chemicals and hi-tech components. Taiwan is the world's leading producer and exporter of laptop computers. 

But Taiwan also exports talent and a major beneficiary of that trade has been the United States. I wanted to visit Taiwan based on the advice of people who really knew it. 

People like Dr. Henry Lee, the world’s leading forensic investigator. The real CSI.

DR. HENRY LEE ON CAMERA: I start my career in Taiwan. I graduate from Taiwan Central Police University. Then I became a police captain. In my career, I assist Law Enforcement around the world investigate approximately seven to eight thousand major cases. A lot of people say those high profile cases the most interesting - O.J. Simpson, John Kennedy Assination, Jon Benet Ramsey, Lacey Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, to recent case, Phil Specter.

BURT WOLF: Taiwan also gave us Michael Tong, who brought elegance to Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

MICHAEL TONG ON CAMERA: I love to eat, I love to cook. And the real restaurant which is I joined Mr. Wang in 1967 at Shun Lee Dynasty. And the first one, actually, become recognized by the New York Times and received four stars. The restaurant take up like fire. 

BURT WOLF: Taiwan native Dr. David Ho is a leading authority on AIDS prevention.

DR. DAVID HO ON CAMERA: I've been a researcher working on HIV/AIDS, ever since the early 1980s. My team had concentrated on understanding HIV, what it does in the body of an infected person. And that led us, in the mid-1990s, to develop certain strategies to treat HIV that ultimately became, quite successful, and that's the so-called combination, or cocktail therapy.

BURT WOLF: Walter Wang, an award-winning entrepreneur, also came from Taiwan.

WALTER WANG ON CAMERA: I'm in the manufacturing business. We take PVC or plastic raw material, and we convert it into building materials. Exterior doors, patio doors, exterior moldings. And so, almost anything you can think of related to building materials. 

BURT WOLF: Fang-Yi Sheu, is an internationally famous dancer who splits her time between Taiwan and the U.S.

FANG-YI SHEU ON CAMERA: Dance makes me fell alive and dance is part of my life. If I try and figure out without dancing what else I can do and that would be really, really big question for myself.

BURT WOLF: And Chien-Ming Wang, star pitcher for the New York Yankees, who currently calls New York home.

CHIEN-MING WANG ON CAMERA: I am pleased and honored to be one of the players on America’s best professional baseball team.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I wondered what it would be like to visit Taiwan with advice from those who knew it best. And so I asked—and I came.

BURT WOLF: Considering the fact that the Taiwanese have been serious about baseball for over 100 years, and that the game is played with the same rules as in the U.S., it’s not surprising they’re producing stars like Yankee pitcher, Chien-Ming Wang.

What is surprising are the differences in what goes on around the games. Six big league teams travel around the country but for many years none of them had a home town which meant that no matter where they were playing, each team had thousands of fans at each game.

The Taiwanese may have accepted the idea of a four based diamond, nine innings to a game and a maximum of three strikes or four balls for each at bat.

But when it comes to ballpark food they definitely have their own approach. Peanuts, popcorn and crackerjacks are out.

Pork and sticky rice sausages and a lunch box with pork, rice, and vegetables are in.

And the fans are not shy about expressing their feelings. They show up with horns… whistles… and drums…and anything else which will help them convey their opinions. And they have an opinions about every play.

These massive responses are organized and coordinated by independent self-appointed cheerleaders. It’s somewhat of a mad house, but the officials see it as just another expression of the nation’s love of democracy and their belief in the right of self expression.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Right now, I am in front of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world. But since some people have always believed that size mattered, I’m sure that someone somewhere is trying to build a taller building. But the height of this building is not what really interests me.

BURT WOLF: I find the building interesting because it is a perfect example of Taiwan’s constant effort to incorporate ancient Chinese principles into modern technology.

Taipei 101 is 508 meters high and is built with the most advanced construction techniques. But it’s shape is like a stalk of bamboo, an ancient Chinese symbol for growth. And that’s only one of many traditional symbols in the building.

STEPHEN CHI ON CAMERA: You see lots of Chinese characters for example the cloud and also the dragon head in the corners of the building and also what we call ru yi in the ancient coins. Oldest characters represent symbols of fortunes, means if people living here, work here, can bring lots of fortunes to him.

BURT WOLF: In Chinese culture the number eight is a symbol for prosperity. Accordingly, the building is divided into eight sections and there are eight floors in each section.

STEPHEN CHI ON CAMERA: And each big union contains eight small unions.  In Chinese it's called fa fa which means to “bring lots of fortunes” so again it means that people working this building can earn lots of money.

BURT WOLF: Taipei 101 also houses the first wind damper that is on public display. Suspended from the 88th floor, this 660-ton ball helps stabilize the building during typhoons and earthquakes.

STEPHEN CHI ON CAMERA: It's main function is to reduce the vibrations of the high buildings because a high building would normally shake by the wind and especially in Taiwan because we have earthquake.

BURT WOLF: The elevators are the fastest in the world, traveling at over 1,000 meters per minute. But their location in the building was approved by a feng shui master practicing the 5,000 year old art that tells him if the construction plan is in keeping with the mythological forces of the planet. Too much feng and not enough shui and you’re in deep trouble.

In 39 seconds these elevators take visitors to the 89th floor where they can look over the city while waiting for their stomachs to catch up.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But if you belong to the terra firma school which believes that the more firmer the less terror, fear not, because those who stay below will be offered shopping.

BURT WOLF: The Taipei 101 Tower rests on a vast support of international shops. Electronic stores, a high-end supermarket, the largest English language book store in Taiwan and dozens of different restaurants, bars and cafes.


BURT WOLF: Ah, my life is filled with unanswered questions, and, like George Carlin, I wonder why there is an expiration date on sour cream? Why do they call it chili if it’s hot? And if money doesn’t grow on trees, why do banks have branches?

And one that has stymied me for decades---the secret of the Taiwanese soup dumpling.

This is the Din Tai Fung dumpling shop and it is the world epicenter for dumplings. Each day thousands of dumpling lovers line up to get in and the line is particularly long on Sundays, because that is the day when they make their inscrutable soup dumplings.

WALTER WANG ON CAMERA: What’s so special about this dumpling is that when you - it's small bite-size dumpling when you bite into it, all the juices flow out.

BURT WOLF: How do you get soup broth into a dumpling without breaking the dough that’s holding everything together?!

Or even more mystifying, what’s the secret of keeping the dough from getting soggy?

The master dumpling maker believes there is no secret. And to prove his point he’s allowing me to video tape him making the dumplings and to watch the replay in slow motion.

Okay. The dough is made from wheat flour. Half gets mixed with cold water—which keeps the dumpling wrapper puff up when it’s steamed. The other half is made with chicken broth which keeps the wrapper from expanding too much.

The dough is kneaded into a rope. A piece is pinched off. A rolling pin is used to flatten it out and shape it into a circle.

The pork filling, which has been mixed with a little gelatin, is packed into the dough.

Then the sealed dumplings go into a steamer where they steam for about two minutes.

When they come out they’re puffed up with soup. How did that soup get in there?

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Let’s watch the replay.

BURT WOLF LOOKING INTO MONITOR AND TO CAMERA: Dough looks okay. Ground pork looks okay. Wait, wait, there it is you see the soup was frozen into a gel and mixed with the pork. It was hiding in plain sight all the time.

Good work huh Dr. Lee?!



BURT WOLF: Most of our celebrations have their origins in something that is happening in nature. It may be happening on earth, like the beginning of the season for planting.

Or it may be happening in the heavens, like the night of the biggest moon.

In Chinese communities all over the world, the most important celebration of the year takes place on the first day of the first lunar month---it’s Chinese New Year and it usually falls around the beginning of February. But unlike the New Year celebration in the west, which lasts for twenty-four hours, the Chinese New Year celebration lasts for two weeks. It ends with the ritual of the lantern festival, which has been part of Chinese New Year for over 2,000 years.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Taiwanese believe that the world is filled with invisible spirits who are roaming around. They also believe that the first full moon of the year casts a magical light that will allow you to see these spirits.

BURT WOLF: In the past, believers would walk around with torches which made the job easier. Eventually those torches became lanterns and the Lantern Festival was born.

Over the years, the Lantern Festival turned into a special event for children. Probably because the date of the first full moon of each year often occurs when children are going back to school after their New Year’s break.

Parents build elaborate lanterns for their children to take to school. And teachers help the children light them.

The bright light rising to the heavens expresses a symbolic wish that the children turn out to be bright students and rise to the top of their class.

On these special evenings, the streets of Taiwan are filled with thousands of people marching along with their lanterns.

Fireworks are often set off to attract the attention of the gods.

There is even a traditional food for the lantern festival. It’s a round sticky rice cake.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The round shape of the cake is symbolic of the moon and of the unity family.

And some people believe if you eat this cake at the right moment in the New Year festivities it will prevent you from aging during the next year. Now, I've been doing that for ten years and as you can clearly see my timing is seriously off.


BURT WOLF: 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 approach is known as the Chinese Palace Style and it's been used for hundreds of years in the construction of the strongholds in which the emperors lived.

CATHERINE FAN ON CAMERA: The Grand Hotel was officially established in 1952.

BURT WOLF: Catherine Fan is a communications specialist with a detailed knowledge of the symbolic meaning of the hotels architecture.

CATHERINE FAN ON CAMERA: If you look carefully at the wood streak patterns of the Grand Hotel you may find something interesting. These are Chinese characters.

BURT WOLF: There are six calligraphic letters on each of the main entrance doors that mean Long life to the Republic of China.

The dragon and the phoenix are symbols for happiness, good fortune and prosperity. They are considered to be the royalty of the animal kingdom and you will find their images on the hotel's staircases, walls and ceilings.

CATHERINE FAN ON CAMERA: The general numbers should be 200,000 dragons.

BURT WOLF: 200,000 dragons are in the building?!


BURT WOLF: So be careful where you walk.

BURT WOLF: The ceilings are also covered with five-petaled plum flowers which is the national flower of The Republic of China on Taiwan.

The flower in the center of the entrance area has 5 dragons holding onto a dragon ball surrounded by an additional 23 dragons and 16 phoenixes---elaborate but essential for good fortune, and prosperity.

While Taiwan was under Japanese occupation, this area was part of a Japanese shrine. A series of bombings destroyed most of the shrine but this dragon remained ---clearly a sign of its mystic powers. So in 1987, the hotel had it gilded and set back in place.

CATHERINE FAN ON CAMERA: I was told this dragon is almost 100 years.



BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It doesn’t look a day over 90.


WALTER WANG ON CAMERA: In Taipei, you would enjoy the best beef noodle soup. There's a restaurant in Taiwan in ... my favorite is called the ... Daddy of Beef Noodle Soup.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: There's a widely accepted rule in economics that as sales increase, prices decrease. But there are some exceptions.

BURT WOLF: One of the more unusual exceptions is Taipei’s Neo Ba-Ba Restaurant. The Beef Bowl.

Their most famous soup is made from five different cuts of beef from five different countries: Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. And the more bowls of beef noodle soup the shop sells, the more it charges.

When Tony Wang and his wife Jan first introduced their Rolls Royce version of the noodle soup they charged 20 dollars U.S. per bowl. 

After they sold 30 bowls of soup they raised the price to 30 dollars.

At 50 bowls it went to 60 dollars.

And today it goes for 120 dollars per bowl. And they have sold over 4,000 bowls since they opened.

JAN & TONY WANG ON CAMERA: When the store first opened there's only one beef soup. After period of time a customer tired of eating the same one so we try to make different that's why it comes to 23 different kinds of noodle soup. This one is the first one and this one is the last one.

BURT WOLF: Before preparing the meal, Tony visits your table to find out your taste preferences. Once you’ve finished the meal, he takes detailed notes about your likes and dislikes and holds them for future reference.

So, just in case you win the national lottery, or marry into great wealth and come back here to celebrate, Tony will be ready to cook for you.

In addition to the usual soup, Tony offers a three course meal called Head of State Beef Noodle Soup Dinner. The first course is slowly simmered beef broth. The second course is five kinds of beef in a soup. The third course is soy braised beef over noodles.

There is no set price for the meal. When you finish eating you pay whatever you think its worth. Tony says that on average people are paying about 250 U.S. dollars per meal.

CUSTOMER ON CAMERA: You can try once or twice in your life but not everyday okay?!


BURT WOLF: There’s lots of nightlife in Taipei, but for me the most interesting are the giant Karaoke Clubs like Partyworld.

FANG-YI SHEU ON CAMERA: KTV is a great place to scream. When you sing and those words come out, and the melody come out it's --- people feel like they're telling their own story.

BURT WOLF: The lobbies are decorated in a style intended to convey a lavish sense of wealth. You have arrived. Your ship has come in. The world awaits your talent.

For speakers of Mandarin, Taiwan is the pop music capital of the world, with its own set of superstars turning out an endless selection of hits.

And millions of fans who feel compelled to sing along.

Karaoke in Taiwan is called KTV and it’s somewhat like a karaoke bar on steroids.

As you get off the elevator you are welcomed by the staff… and taken on a tour of the buffet and the food is pretty good.

The building consists of ten stories of private karaoke rooms.

Some are huge and can hold over 2,000 people. The smallest are designed for no more than a dozen. And they have just about every size in between. You book your space. Assemble at the appointed hour and sing your heart out. The place is open 24 hours a day and there is always a party going on.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Well you can do anything but don’t step on my blue suede shoes. You can burn my house, you can steal my car, you can drink my liquor from an old fruit jar, you can do anything you want to do but honey don’t step on my blue suede shoes.

Thank you, thank you very much.

BURT WOLF: For Travels and Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.