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Travel in music: Chapter 24 - 2004, Taiwan

2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!


2004 – Chapter 24 | A mere few months after abandoning my last job, I was back on the road with a similar agency. Two friends, whom I had met in the summer of 2001 while we both worked on projects in Turkey, had just launched it in Istanbul. The business model they proposed was different enough and I had itchy feet again. I did not take long to convince. After a brief hesitation, I was boarding a plane to Taiwan, wondering why I had ever attempted to settle down in Brussels.

This strange Chinese-but-not-Chinese island was my first encounter with the Far East. I had no preconceived expectations at all, apart from a few vague notions acquired in history class. Its striking mix of tradition and modernity was, therefore, a very pleasant surprise. Because I was reporting on the steel industry, my first stop was the industrial harbor city of Kaohsiung, in the southern tip of the archipelago. My hotel was a shiny skyscraper offering sweeping views over the busy metropolis, right on the water’s edge. An amazing display of fireworks greeted me upon arrival. I had landed smack in the middle of the yearly Lantern Festival. I went down to the street, immersed myself in the crowds and strolled through the food markets’ busy aisles, along the river. I could barely identify a tenth of the delicacies on offer but delightful smells emanated from every corner. Children were running amok, shrieking with laughter each time they managed to startle someone with their firecrackers. Elaborate light sculptures, dotted along the riverbanks, suffused the night with rainbow colors, which the water reflected back, slightly distorted. It felt like walking through a giant, fragrant, noisy kaleidoscope; all my senses were being stimulated at once. Taiwan had won me over on my very first night.

Food was to be one of the threads of my stay. I am curious by nature but when it comes to food, I am downright inquisitive. Another feature was the language barrier. Few people spoke English and I could not even decipher the signs. In places like Turkey or the Czech Republic, I could always get away with mispronouncing something I could at least read. No such luck in an environment where even the “letters” are unidentifiable. Those two features, food and language, combined to incredibly comic effects on more than one occasion. After a good thirty minutes of surreal struggle with different menus, some containing pictures that did not help, an exasperated waiter once grabbed me by the sleeve and dragged me into the kitchen to point what I wanted to eat – amid roars of laughter from the patrons. In Huaxi alley, in Taipei, four little glasses containing liquids of different colors came with my snake soup. The shop owner mimed what I had to do with them: drink all four like shots, in rapid succession. I still do not know what made him laugh hardest: my grimace when I finished the 4th or my startled face when someone finally explained what the glasses contained: blood, bile, venom and semen from the same snake that was floating in my soup.

A family connection had put us in touch with his distributor of refractory bricks. His twin daughters alternated to help us with translating and transcribing our interviews. They also took us under their wing, illustrating exactly how hospitable and warm the Taiwanese are with foreigners. We dined in their home and in fancy restaurants where, finally, we could understand what dishes we were sampling. They also took us out to a “karaoke hotel” with a few of their friends. In a private salon, kitted with a giant TV, loudspeakers and several microphones, you could order songs with a remote control and ring up waiters to bring you drinks. The building was several stories high and probably renting more than 60 rooms, giving an indication of exactly how popular karaoke is. If you wanted to hone your skills to avoid public embarrassment at the karaoke hotel, you could always practice privately in the malls. They had little coin-operated booths in which you could bellow out a song in visual, if not sonic, anonymity that looked exactly like photo-ID machines, right down to the cheesy curtain.

Politics is a tortuous affair in Taiwan. The relation with mainland China is as complicated now as it has been throughout the cold war. The ties that bind the ‘rebel province’ with the motherland are undeniably deep, both culturally and commercially. Yet, its identity is also specific, shaped by the wedge between Han and indigenous ‘Gaoshan’ culture, the influence of Japan and the USA and the democratic-capitalist path it chose to follow. The political debate revolves around what exact configuration the relationship with China must have but few on the island would deny that their destinies are irretrievably and intrinsically interwoven. While we were there, Taiwan had its very own Kennedy affair. A day before the election, a lone gunman shot the President and the First lady at a televised rally. He failed to kill them, instead only wounding them lightly. The alleged shooter was found a week later, drowned in Tainan. The police promptly ruled his death a suicide even though his family had supposedly burnt the notes he left behind to explain his motives. Buoyed by sympathy over his ordeal, the President won the election by a mere 30.000 votes over his rival. The truth of what happened remains unclear to this day. It felt staged at the time and a cloud of doubt still hangs over this murky incident.

Illustrating this chapter with music is a very difficult task for me. I did not delve deep enough into Taiwan’s musical tradition while I was there and the bubbly, commercial pop that dominated the airwaves bounced off my ears like water off a duck’s back. In the public parks, teenagers rehearsed elaborate choreographies in front of mirrors. While the elasticity of their bodies may have impressed me, the melodies and beats to which they contorted did not move me one bit. I have therefore cheated a little bit and, rather than pull a song from memories of my time in Kaohsiung and Taipei, I have searched for music from Taiwan in the cyber universe. I found this vintage little gem from the 70s that sounds like a cover of Mambo Italiano. Fitting, no?


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