Taipei: Four Must-See Sites

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Taiwan’s capital city emerging as a popular Asian vacation spot

The Arizona Republic — April 30, 2017

TAIPEI, Taiwan – As visitors enter the world’s second-fastest elevator to take them to the top of the world’s eighth-tallest building, a sign tells them to prepare for a “journey that’ll change your life.”  The sign calls the elevator “the greatest vertical road to instant urban tranquility.”

Taipei 101

Taipei 101 is built to resemble a bamboo tree rising from the Earth

From its impressive skyline to its massive metropolitan population of 7 million, to a state-of-the-art mass-transit system as clean and efficient as any in the world, to its unconventional street markets that offer everything from pig’s blood rice cake to duck tongue, Taipei is anything but understated.

This capital city of Taiwan, an island just over 100 miles east of mainland China, offers a fascinating mix of exotic Chinese culture topped by a heavy dose of Western capitalism.

Long overshadowed by more well-known East Asian destinations like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai, Taipei is emerging as an up-and-coming vacation spot.  In fact, it is now the 14th-ranked city in the world in terms of attracting foreign visitors, with more than 9 million tourist arrivals in 2015, up 5 percent from the prior year.

It takes a full week to seriously explore Taipei and its environs.  Here are my four favorite sites from a recent visit:

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Taiwan, officially named the Republic of China, has a complicated political history with an uncertain future.  The best place to make sense of it all is the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which honors the island’s first president.  Chiang was a military and political leader in mainland China before being defeated by the Communists after World War II.  He retreated to Taiwan in 1949 and led the government there until his death in 1975.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

The iconic Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

The memorial, surrounded by a large park, has 89 steps, representing Chiang’s age at the time of his death.  There are three floors, where visitors can examine historical documents, photographs and films.

The centerpiece of the facility is a large bronze statue of Chiang, watched over by two military guards.  There is an hourly rifle-twirling changing-of-the-guard ceremony that draws big crowds (see video shot by the author at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial: Changing-of-the-guard ceremony).

China claims Taiwan as its own territory and wants the island unified with the rest of the country.  Even though it has the 22nd largest economy in the world, Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations.  It was expelled from the U.N. in 1971 – due to Chinese pressure — and hasn’t been allowed to return.

Taipei 101

View from Taipei 101

A youngster enjoys the view from the 89th floor of Taipei 101

Built to resemble bamboo rising out of the earth, this skyscraper has more character than many of the world’s other superstructures.  Taipei 101, so-named because it has 101 stories, was certified as the world’s tallest building from 2004-2010.  It has now slipped to 8th on the list (Burj Khalifi in Dubai is the tallest), but still boasts the world’s second-fastest elevator, behind a tower in Shanghai that opened last year.

For such a speedy ride, the trip to the top is surprisingly relaxing.  While listening to new-age music with the lights turned off, visitors are smoothly whisked to the 89th-floor observation deck in just 37 seconds (about 38 miles-per-hour).  It may not be a “life-changing” event, but it’s certainly worth the 600 New Taiwan dollar admission price (about U.S. $20).  Needless to say, the views of Taipei’s skyline, ringed by a volcanic mountain range, are magnificent.

Designed to withstand typhoons and earthquakes, fairly common occurrences in the region, Taipei 101 houses an upscale mall, restaurants and offices.

National Palace Museum

National Palace Museum

The National Palace Museum houses nearly 700,000 artifacts spanning 8,000 years of Chinese history

Originally founded in Beijing’s Forbidden City in 1925, much of the museum’s collection was moved to Taiwan in 1948 to protect it from China’s civil war.  It now houses nearly 700,000 artifacts encompassing 8,000 years of Chinese history.

Among the most popular items on display is a 3,000-year-old bronze ceremonial cauldron called Mao-Gong Ding.  The inside surface is inscribed in 500 ancient Chinese characters arranged in 32 lines, making it the longest bronze inscription in the world.

The National Palace Museum annually attracts more than 6 million visitors.

Northern Coast

A day-trip to the island’s northern coast can be a welcome respite from the densely-populated city.  Keelung City, just a one-hour drive from Taipei, is a fishing village known for hiking and outstanding seafood.

Queen's Head

The famous Queen’s Head rock formation at Yehliu Geopark

Just outside Keelung is the Yehliu Geopark, which features a cape with several remarkable hoodoo rock formations created by centuries of wind and erosion.  The most famous formation, known as the “Queen’s Head,” is 4,000 years old and was named for its supposed likeness to England’s Queen Elizabeth I.

The elements continue to nibble away at the formations and some geologists think they may not survive more than another 50-100 years.

Travel Tips

Taipei is easy to traverse, whether by subway, bus, reasonably priced taxis, or just plain walking.  It’s one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in Asia.  I stayed at a centrally located business hotel called Palais de Chine, located next to the central bus and train stations.

Taipei street vendor

A street vendor prepares traditional Chinese dumplings in downtown Taipei

The hotel also is within easy walking distance of numerous noodle shops and food stalls selling outrageously cheap – and tasty – bowls of Taiwanese cuisine.  You won’t go hungry in Taipei, which is said to have one of the highest densities of restaurants in the world.

There are direct flights to Taipei from several American cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle.  Visas are not required for stays of less than 90 days.

Aside from its unsettled political status and tensions with China, Taipei used to be known mainly for its championship Little League baseball teams and as a quick stopover for North American and European tourists on their way to more trendy Asian destinations.

Now – due to its culture, history and urban delights — it’s rightfully earning a reputation as a memorable vacation spot in its own right.

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Preserving Jewish Life in Taiwan

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Taipei’s Jewish Center meets the needs of locals and foreigners alike

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — May 5, 2017

TAIPEI, Taiwan — When you’re the only full-time rabbi in a relatively small and isolated Jewish community – like that found on the Asian island of Taiwan — you’re expected to do much more than lead religious services.

Rabbi Shlomi Tabib

Rabbi Shlomi Tabib in the sanctuary of the Taipei Jewish Center

Among the many duties performed by Rabbi Shlomi Tabib, director of the Taipei Jewish Center, are hand-delivering Kosher food to visiting Israeli Knesset members, leading a weekly discussion group on Jewish-related topics, and working with the Taiwan Minister of Education to develop Holocaust education in the local schools.

And, while it’s not his favorite part of the job, the rabbi will occasionally even slaughter a chicken in accordance with strict kashrut law.

Such is the busy life of the Chabad rabbi, who moved to Taiwan in 2011 from Israel with his wife Racheli to open the Taipei Jewish Center, the only synagogue on this island of about 24 million people that is just over 100 miles east of mainland China.  At 13,855 square miles, Taiwan is slightly bigger than the state of Maryland.

Tabib estimates the Jewish population in Taiwan to be about 1,000, 85 percent of whom live in Taipei, the capital and largest city. Taipei, which features the eighth-tallest building in the world, Taipei 101 (so-named because it has 101 stories), is a densely populated metropolitan area with about 7 million residents.

Unlike China, where the Jewish community can trace its roots back to the 10th century, significant numbers of Jews didn’t arrive in Taiwan until the 1950s.  Many of the first wave of newcomers were American soldiers.

Taipei Jewish Center

The Taipei Jewish Center is located in the Daan District in downtown Taipei

In subsequent decades, American troops left Taiwan but Jews in other fields arrived.  Some work in the country’s thriving high-tech industry, while others are employed as diplomats, in the diamond business, banking and education.  Additionally, there are numerous Jewish tourists who visit the island.

Regardless of their age, occupation or level of religious observance, Jews wanting a chance to connect with other Jews and celebrate Shabbat and other holidays are always welcome to visit the Taipei Jewish Center.  Tabib says Friday night services and dinner typically attract 30-40 people, most of them visiting tourists and business people.  However, getting a minyan for Saturday services can often be a challenge.

“There are not many observant people residing here,” lamented the rabbi, who added that “a large percentage” of Jews living in Taiwan have intermarried.

Nevertheless, the Jewish Center is busy catering to the needs of both locals and visitors alike.  It houses the sole Kosher kitchen on the island, importing most of its food from Israel and the United States.  Aside from serving food at the facility, an average of 10-15 meals per week are delivered to hotels, businesses and convention centers.

View of Taipei

View of Taiwan’s capital city from the 89th floor of Taipei 101

The Jewish Center also offers a Sunday Hebrew school, coordinated by Racheli, with assistance from two volunteers from Israel.  About 25 children are currently enrolled, aged 3-10.

Tabib said being an isolated community with a small staff has both its pros and cons.

“It’s kind of challenging being far away from everything — any other synagogue or any other rabbi,” he said.  “It gives a lot of responsibility on our shoulders being here, and with that, we also have a lot of satisfaction when things go well.”

The 33-year-old Tabib, who spent three years in Hong Kong as a rabbi, said the Taiwanese people have – for the most part – been quite welcoming.

“Overall, their approach is very positive,” he said.  “The Taiwanese people are known to be very generous to foreigners.  It is embedded in their culture that the Jewish people are smart and successful and I think most of them look to us in a positive way.  That said, many people here don’t know much about Judaism.”

Unfortunately, there was an incident in December involving a high school parade in which students dressed as Nazi soldiers and carried swastika banners.  As a result, the principal of the school resigned.  A few years earlier, a restaurant with a concentration camp theme opened but soon closed due to controversy.

The rabbi attributed the incidents more to ignorance than blatant anti-Semitism.

“People don’t really know about the Nazis,” he said.  “I’m not saying this is an excuse, but these people have no intention to go against the Jewish people or the state of Israel.”

Still, the rabbi is working with the Taiwanese government to enhance Holocaust education in the schools.

“We are working on a plan where people will have more education to learn what happened during World War II,” he said.  “Once they are given the facts, they will back off and say ‘this isn’t something we stand for.  This isn’t something we want to endorse.’”

The Jewish Center is located in a building on a side street in a commercial district of Taipei called Daan, not far from the city center.  Tabib said visitors are welcome to contact him for information about services, other events and obtaining Kosher food:

Ultimately, he would like to see a permanent synagogue erected, the first in Taiwanese history.

“The problem is we want to buy land, but land here is really expensive,” he said.  “You wait for a big donor.  You wait for a lot of things for something like this to be possible.”

In the meantime, Rabbi Tabib goes about his daily business – doing whatever needs to be done to preserve Jewish life in Taiwan – even if that means slaughtering a chicken every now and then.

“There are many challenges for us, so we need to do a lot of things on our own,” he said.  “I think telling our story and showing that we have a thriving community here demonstrates that there is a future for the Jews in Taiwan.  If there is anybody who is thinking of moving here because of business reasons, they should know that they will be in safe hands.”

© 2017 Dan Fellner