The way China ought to be

May 16, 2012

My excuse for the paucity of posts this week is a simple one: I’m not in Cambodia. Instead, I’m on a week-long jaunt around Taiwan, courtesy of the Taiwan Tourist Board, for a long series of pieces for an eminent US magazine.

So far, I’m rather enjoying it. How could one not? I’m being paid to look at the best bits of an extremely interesting country; I’m fed, watered and transported around at someone else’s expense in the company of an extremely nice and well informed guide. Everyone concerned wants me to like the place, so are trying their best to please me. And this is apparently called ’working’. It beats lots of other forms of working, as far as I’m concerned. If I had all the money in the world, this is probably what I’d do with it.

Of course, it’s not entirely perfect. I challenge anyone to deal with a hotel buffet while on crutches (the staff don’t seem to like it if you push your plate across the carpet with the tip of a crutch while hopping. It makes me laugh, though.)

My guide, the wonderful Felix, is deadly earnest about showing me everything possible, and keeps saying things like: ”There is an exhibition of traditional ethnic fish-drying techniques in the next village. Would you like to see it?”

Last night, he guilted me into going to see a ‘traditional ethnic music show’ by telling me that the performers didn’t work that night, but were coming along specially to entertain me. I sighed (theatrically) and agreed to go for half an hour. And you know what? It was wonderful, and I had the best time I’ve had in this country so far.

It was more folk club than ethnic music show, with lots of guys in thick-rimmed specs and girls in cheesecloth skirts strumming guitars and singing beautifully. At one point, two sisters from the local Amis tribe got up and duetted – apparently last year they won a Taiwanese Grammy. They sounded like the McGarrigles in Mandarin, plaintive and beautiful, and I sat in a candle-lit grove of camphor trees with a cool beer and was mesmerised. So I have to cut Felix some slack.

He did, however, have some making up to do. On Sunday we’d had a seven-course lunch, which I’d complained about. But yesterday’s lunch ran to 14 courses, most of them fish, and most of them uncooked. I was surprised at how hacked off I was by the end, as course after unwanted course of the vile nonsense that is sushi kept arriving at the table. It was probably pretty good, as sushi goes, but as far as I’m concerned that’s not saying very much.

On the whole, though, Taiwan is a delight. Except for the buildings, which are epically, apocalyptically hideous. The general aesthetic standard of the country’s architecture makes Birmingham look like Venice. A four-year-old with a box of grimy Lego could construct better-looking towns. The Best of Taiwanese Architecture would go on the list of the world’s shortest books, along with Italian War Heroes, The Wit and Wisdom of George W. Bush, and Great Golf Stories. I’ve covered five or six hundred miles of the country so far, and haven’t seen a building I’d want to live in. And I don’t have very high standards.

I’d like to be able to draw some clever parallels between Cambodia and Taiwan, but I don’t think I can. Cambodia is dirty, corrupt, lively and chaotic. Taiwan is clean, well-mannered, orderly, polite, and grown up. Cambodia is an unruly teenager; Taiwan is in its late middle age. Yet both countries are relatively recent inventions: Cambodia only really began in 1979; Taiwan in 1949. But if you gave Cambodia another 30 years, it still wouldn’t be Taiwan. And I can’t wait to get back there.

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One Response to “The way China ought to be”

  1. Nicola said

    Ha ha – Sushi I am SO glad you have had to eat it, serves you right for being so fussy! I wonder if there are any other eminent US publications who could send you perhaps to Wales or New Zealand where you would have to eat Lamb Chops another fine delicacy you have stupidly taken against!

    As to commenting further on your piece, the glorious architectural ‘beauty, of Taipei always reminded me the film the Blade Runner – the Taiwanese take on architecture is to marry the ugliest municipal type buildings from a totalitarian state and the mindlessly boring small time America grid system

    Enjoy the rest of your trip

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