Taiwan keeps its relationship with China on the strait and narrow


TAIWAN LETTER:Relations between the self-ruled island and China have begun to thaw

At the Lily fruit shop in the balmy city of Tainan they serve a bowl of delicious almond jelly atop shaved ice stained with molasses, as a choral rendition of Ave Maria plays in the background.

Seated on chairs outside the open-fronted shop as scooters buzz past, it’s a bucolic scene, one that fits with Tainan’s current incarnation as a bustling, peaceful city to the south of Taiwan, in the shadow of mainland China.

Taiwan has been self-ruled since Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang nationalists lost the Chinese civil war with Chairman Mao Zedong’s Communists and fled across the strait in 1949.

The first settlers on Taiwan were indigenous Austronesian people who lived quietly on the island for around eight millennia until the Dutch East India Company chose Tainan as its base in the region and built Fort Zeelandia there in 1624, the same year the Dutch West India Company dispatched settlers to Manhattan.

The site the Dutch chose was a group of sandbars off the southern coast of Taiwan, named “beautiful island” or “Formosa” by smitten Portuguese sailors the previous century. Today the sandbars are gone, the land reclaimed.

Tainan became an important staging post between the Dutch colonial headquarters in Batavia and other markets in Japan to the north and Fujian to the west. Its old name, Tayouan, is said to be the origin of the name Taiwan.

The bricks of the fort were laid with a mortar that almost sounds like a local dish and included glutinous rice, ground oyster shells and molasses.

In 1661 the Ming general Koxinga, son of a pirate, laid siege to the town with 400 warships and 30,000 men, armed with halbards. The garrison of more than 2,000 Dutch soldiers and a few hundred settlers under the governor Frederick Coyett defended the town with their muskets and pistols for nine months, but superior firepower is nothing when your supply line is cut, and in the absence of relief from Batavia the garrison surrendered in February 1662 after the loss of 1,600 lives.

Outside the fort you can sit on the oldest street in Taiwan, Anping Old Street, and watch worshippers come and go from the Tianhou temple. The Communist Party in China, especially during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, wreaked havoc on belief systems and religious sites but Taiwan has generally respected religion.

The temple building has suffered, wrecked during the Japanese occupation between 1895 and 1945 and bombed by the Americans during the second World War. It has been rebuilt in fabulously ornate style and is a bustling place.

Taiwan is also an island surrounded by rich fishing grounds, and as we leave the fort we see pensioners sitting in a circle cheerfully shucking a huge pile of oysters.

When the KMT fled they took their cookbooks with them and there are examples of China’s diverse food tradition everywhere – northern dumplings, southern fish and dim sum, western Chinese noodles and delicate Shanghai dishes.

It’s no accident the glorious Dintaifung chain of noodle shops started life in Taiwan.The Japanese occupation also left a strong tradition of excellent food.

Here in Tainan is the prestigious National Tainan First Senior High School, which produced some of Taiwan’s best-known figures.

Film-maker Ang Lee, whose current film is The Life of Pi, is a graduate of the school.

Another is pro-independence leader Chen Shui-bian, president of Taiwan from 2000 to 2008. Tainan is Chen’s stronghold. A native-born Taiwanese, colloquially referred to as A-Bian, his election in 2000 marked the end of 51 years of continuous rule by the Kuomintang.

He was born to a poor farming family in the town of Guantian, since incorporated into Tainan, in 1950, but his birth certificate was not issued until February 1951 as he was sickly and it looked as if he would not survive.

Chen’s period in power was one of tension with China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province and was deeply upset by Chen’s hints that the self-ruled island might declare independence.

He was narrowly re-elected in 2004 – many believe a late surge in support came after he survived a mysterious shooting opponents say he staged.

After Chen was voted out he was convicted with his wife Wu Shu-chen on bribery charges and is serving 19 years in Taipei prison, reduced from a life sentence supporters say was revenge by the Kuomintang for his years in power.

A-bian’s successor Ma Ying-jeou has taken a much softer line on relations with China. One of the initial stages in thawing cross-strait relations was to allow more fruit from Taiwan to be exported to the mainland. Almond jelly and shaved ice can now be ordered in select restaurants on the mainland too.