And Now, Taiwan

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2004

The smells of gunpowder and sweet incense mix with the pungent smoke from piles of ghost money being burned for ancestral spirits. Strings of exploding firecrackers compete for sound waves with metal gongs and kettle drums.

A troupe of "devil boys" in bright Chinese opera-like costumes, their faces intricately painted in evil-looking designs, perform martial arts moves as other worshipers dance or weave through the crowds, swinging the palanquins that once carried emperors or gods.

The riotous religious ceremony is of ancient Chinese origin, a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and ancestor worship. But such rituals are not commonly found in the cities of China. They're everywhere in Taiwan.

The island about 100 miles off the coast of mainland China is about the size of Maryland, but supports more than 23,000 temples and churches, mostly radiantly colorful temples. And although it's small and densely populated, Taiwan is blessed with a diverse landscape: 970 miles of coastline, lakes, waterfalls, beaches and craggy mountains dotted with hot springs. The north is semi-tropical, the south tropical, and the mountaintops occasionally get snow.

Throughout its 55-year history as a self-governing island, Taiwan has stood on precarious ground. China claims Taiwan as its own, insists that reunification is inevitable, and makes its point by training 500 missiles at the island. Until now, Taiwan has basically gone its own way without formally challenging China's claim.

That could change. This Saturday, while electing a president, Taiwan will also vote on a carefully and diplomatically worded referendum that China considers akin to a declaration of independence, or at least a step in that direction. Chinese officials have threatened a harsh response if the referendum is approved.

Until recently, I only saw Taiwan in the context of politics. Before I began planning a trip there, I had never even thought about Taiwan as a tourist destination. Say its former name -- Formosa -- and I got a rather vague Pacific island kind of notion in my brain. The word "Taiwan" conjured little more than a mental picture of Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang party fleeing China for Taiwan in 1949, with victorious Communists at their heels.

Apparently the gap in my worldview is shared with my fellow Americans: Only 63,000 U.S. tourists a year on average visit Taiwan, according to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.

The Taiwanese government, eager to replace manufacturing jobs lost to China, hopes to change that. In the last year, officials have been touring the United States, calling news conferences to promote the island as worthy of tourist eyes, and dollars.

At one such gathering in Washington, I ask a blunt question that outside journalism circles would be considered just plain rude.

"Why should tourists go to Taiwan instead of, say, Hong Kong or mainland China?"

Rather than taking offense, Cherng-tyan Su, director of the Taiwanese tourism bureau, gives an intriguing answer. "Hong Kong has a colonized Chinese culture. True Chinese culture should be in China, but the cultural heritage has been broken by 50 years of Communist Party rule, the Cultural Revolution and the interference with religion.

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