Love and Loneliness in Taiwan

One of my best friends sent me the article below, almost erupting an argument between both of us. “Personally, I hate this writer’s guts,” she shared. “Everything he writes about Taiwan is negative; nothing positive.”

I read it and for some insane reason, agree with most of the observations the writer has pointed out.

Isn’t it true that people here work long hours and push their children to study at cram school to get ahead in such a competitive global market?

Isn’t it true that most Taiwanese think of themselves as prude, but underneath close doors, I know extra-marital affairs are common and it’s been awhile since I’ve met a virgin in Taiwan?

Isn’t it true that Taiwan is one of the leading countries in the world in terms of technology, boasting of one of the most connected places (Wi-Fi anyone), and the tallest building in the world — and yet, such success has come with a dire cost? That people work themselves hard, and ironically, despite being one of the more developed countries (at least, compared to the Philippines), they have yet to declare independence in fear of having missiles shot at us by Big Brother across the seas?

I read the essay but I feel not hate, but empathy with the writer. Maybe it’s because I am a foreigner then that I dare agree?

He’s only talking about the surface,” criticizes my friend. “Taiwan’s got good parts too. People in common are not that bad, and we have been changing all the negative things.”

But for me, it’s not about good or bad — it’s about being different.

I don’t feel that the writer is admonishing Taiwan per se. Actually, I find that he is praising Taiwanese people’s industriousness and fortitude of being able to succeed — but at a cost of not maintaining a good work/life balance (due to always pushing and working hard), of always looking over their shoulders in fear of lagging behind and of trying to differentiate themselves from all the others.

That’s one of the reasons why the Philippines is lagging behind — we have such a laid-back attitude that we unconsciously allow ourselves to be left behind. But sometimes, I think that is why, the Filipinos are happy. We just have different priorities — not career or success, but of family and friends.

There are always two sides to bread. I personally think this essay is not an insult, but I welcome you to share your opinions and try to shed some light:

Enjoy! I know I did. 🙂

So agree or disagree? Feel free to discuss lo!


(A translation of an article stated in a Dutch newspaper (Trouw
), translated to English by Mick Katerberg for the purpose of Taiwanese people who are interested on how Westerners view Taiwan as a country and the culture of the people who live there. Mick is not a qualified translator and is not be held responsible for the content of the translated part. The newspaper that originally printed the article does not allow any reproduction in printed form on the internet or printed newspaper, It is however permitted to print this article and translate it for individual use and direct related people, for reprint on the internet or in any newspaper the writer (David Signer) has to give his consent, the address of the writer is known to the editor of the newspaper)

The original article is written by a Swiss anthropologist David Signer and is entitled, “Love and Loneliness in Taiwan”

The emphasis upon educating and performance of the kids is characteristic for all Confucian countries like China, Japan, Korea and Singapore. But in Taiwan the people want the world to show that they are the better China. From 1895 till 1945 Taiwan was occupied by Japan, after that period it belonged to China. After the Second World War when Mao’s army defeated the nationalistic army of Tsjang Kai-sjek, they fled with 1.5 million citizens (mostly of them high developed and upper class), 500,000 soldiers, and the national treasure to Taiwan. Mao as well as Tsjang Kai-sjek saw themselves as the one and only representation of China. The official name of Taiwan is still “Republic of China”. The USA armed Taiwan as a buffer against communistic China and Tsjang Kai-sjek never gave up his goal to conquer China again up to his death in 1975. Taiwan nowadays has a population of 24 million people, China 1.3 billion. The island country is economically a world power but politically isolated. Taiwan does not even have the status of “observer” in the UN and is only recognized as a country by 27 other countries like Palau, Kiribati and Swaziland. This is because China refuses any political relations with countries that recognize Taiwan as an independent country, and who does, especially today, want China as an opponent?

Continuously Taiwan experiences the presence of China like a big brother you want to push off but always keeps the lead no matter the distance. Taiwan always stipulates that it respects human rights, nobody will die from starvation, there is freedom of thought and press, Taiwan is progressive, democratic, liberal, cosmopolitan, post-industrial and post modern; the better China. But is seems like the citizens of Taiwan situate themselves in a jumbo jet: if the pace slows down below a certain speed, then it will crash.

Sheena Chang is editor at the China Times. Her daughter of four is having extra courses in English. Sheena is keen on getting her daughter to a national University. These are better then the private universities and even cheaper. This leads to the fact that especially children born from highly educated and rich parents, who can afford the extra courses, can enter the ‘better‘ Universities. The fee is low there and children of the lower class have to pay extra for the ‘lesser” Universities.

Sheena Chang comes with another Taiwan-record: nowhere in the world kids sleep less then in Taiwan. She calls people like her ‘pm-people’, coming from post meridian. ‘I am going to work at 2 pm (14:00) and return at 10 pm (22:00)’. Most people working in the IT business work at night, because their customers in Europe and the USA are then in their daytime. The children of these ‘pm-people’ stay up till midnight with them: they eat together, watch TV and play computer games. But the kids in contrary to their parents have to get up at 7 am to get to school.

She tells the story so business-like that I carefully ask if that does not hurt the health of the kids. ‘Maybe so’, she says, ‘but it makes them also stronger. This way it makes them stronger to cope with pressure later. The biggest concern is the grandmothers who spoil the kids. They only stuff them with food, but don’t teach them anything.’

One evening I meet a psychiatrist in a hot spring spa ( besides visiting karaoke bars one of the favorite free time fun activities for Taiwanese). At 10 pm he says he has to go home to help his daughter with her homework. ‘At this hour?’ I ask surprised. ‘Sure, tomorrow she will have chemistry exam, and I will take over the theory with her once more.’

A Swiss woman who lived in Taiwan for a long time says: ‘the only thing that counts for these people is food and making money. Love and sex are not important. If somebody says ‘I love you’, then it means nothing, but if he gives you a big piece of his meat then you know you are important for him.’

The Taiwanese eroticism is not easy to understand. The people are prude; besides the city center of Taipei you hardly see any couples hold their hand or exchange other tender behavior. But at the other hand if you look at the sales girls of betel nuts, they sit in their bikini in a glass box, which you can recognize easy by the green neon-star along side the road. You stop your car, she comes out, bends over in front of the window so you can have a good look at her dcollet, she walks wiggling her bum to the get the order and gives you the nuts with a tempting smile. The euphoric feeling and the sweating that comes after chewing the betel nuts, makes the happiness complete. These nuts cost two times as much when bought from these girls then normal, but especially the taxi and truck drivers don′t care to pay the difference. These sales girls are mostly found in the countryside; the mayor of liberal Taipei tries to ban them from the city center.

Also traditional healers sell their wonder medicines accompanied by sparsely clothed girls. But the most funny is the performance of these ‘sexy girls’ at weddings and even funerals. You can see a long row of cars and trucks; on one of them is the coffin with the deceased, on another there are the hired mourners, and on a third you see the dancing ‘sexy girls’. It seems that the audience, including children, experiences no conflict between the table-dance atmosphere and the mourning about the deceased. ‘The surviving dependents pay a lot of money for such performances in order to have a lot of people attend and honor the deceased’, so people tell me.

By the official prude it is hard for love couples, and even spouses, to find a private space. One of the favorite places to get some intimacy was the MTV, cabins where you can watch movies. But at a certain moment the police intervened, the cabins could not be closed anymore and a guard could at any moment intrude the cabin. So the love couples changed to the parks and the KTV’s: buildings with lot of rooms where you can sing karaoke as a couple or as a group. But also here a waiter could enter any time. At least each room has a surprising big closable toilet. Nowadays the motels are doing good business, they are quite cheap, 20 euros for three hours. But there is one disadvantage, they are mostly situated outside the center, so you need a car.

It’s easier to find a nice restaurant. In Taipei there are thousands of food facilities. Even on the top of the chimney of the garbage burning installation you can find a rotating restaurant, called ‘star tower’. Apparently there is a close relation between food and sex according to the Taiwanese. Continuously you hear what good the different dishes will do for, in general, men. Especially local dishes like: cow eyes, bee larvae, swallow nests (the spittle of birds), grasshoppers, dried elk penis, shark fin, sea cucumber, mushrooms, dried human afterbirth, unborn chicken from the egg (raw), ginseng, bear bone, duck tongue, sea horse, but above all snake. On the Huaxi night market a market salesman hangs a still living snake on a rope and cuts it open in full length, he catches the blood in a glass and offers the audience to have a taste. After that he also removes the gall bladder and squeezes it out in a glass. The gel slimy substance is said to work extensively on the libido, as the salesman demonstrates by moving up and down chopsticks between his legs.

The women however will not get happier by it. For instance take Chang Mei-Ling. She is in her mid thirties, studied French litterature and works for a French company. She is single. Everything that would be in man′s favor is in her disadvantage, a good education, good job, high income, all in her disadvantage. And besides that she is taller then average. A man in Taiwan wants to be better educated then his wife, have a better income, and to be at least one head taller. She herself would like to have a husband like that. But there are not many that will meet these criteria, besides the fact that she has hardly time for a relation.

Chang Mei-Ling has been married before. She wanted children, he did not. He said that he wanted to earn a million first. They hardly saw each other. When she noticed he had a love affair with a colleague she divorced. ‘Everything you do here is for the purpose of making a career’ she says. ‘Most Taiwanese men are like that. Some try to change for their woman, but after a while they get fed up by her because they have the feeling that the woman has taken away something from them.’ Her parents were always out for business when she was a kid. Mostly the oldest daughter took the responsibility for the younger kids. ‘That is why we are so clever and independent’, says Chang Mei-Ling. ‘Because we grew up alone’.

When she goes out she only attends business dinners and karaoke nights with her customers. She does not care about shopping nor expensive brands of clothes; she spends her money on traveling – last year she went with her mother to a 5 star hotel on an island in the pacific ocean – and her collection of plushy pigs. She says ‘you think that our society is so colorful and free but it looks like that because we don’t have roots. Our parents were immigrants, they were lost when they came here and nowadays they don’t understand anything anymore. We are all orphans, and our children will be like that as well.’ She also says ‘Many people don’t work till 10 pm because they have to, but because of inner emptiness. They dream to have earned to retire at the age of 50, and when they reached it they die of boredom.’

Compared to the hypermodern state of Taiwan, Europe looks ancient. Half of Taipei has a wireless Internet zone; even in the MRT you can check your email. The mayor of Taipei wants to make Taipei the first wireless city in the world. Many people have a GPS system on their mobile; they might feel lost but they can at least localise themselves geographically. In many taxis you will find screens in the headrest of the front chairs, so you can follow the news during your trip. This efficiency you experience everywhere. A Taiwanese lady told me that she was once at a German wedding. She experienced it as awful, it took ages. Even a wedding is supposed to happen fast.

There are restaurants where every table has a screen where you can watch hundreds of programs while eating, and in a lot of hotels there are rooms where the room and bathroom are split by a glass wall. Not to watch your spouse taking a shower but the other way around, so you can even watch television from the bath.

Another technical wonder is the 508-meter high skyscraper “Taipei 101“; it has the fastest elevator in the world; at 60 kilometers an hour you are taken up to the 80th floor in a few seconds. But you hardly notice it; the cabins are under regulated pressure.

The ‘Taipei 101’ is constructed according the Feng-Shui principles; that is the traditional knowledge of architecture that adjusts to the invisible flows and ghosts at a certain place. According to this knowledge it is forbidden to have the entrance exactly facing the exit; otherwise you take the risk that the visitor of the building will enter it and immediately will exit it. According to the Feng-Shui principles it is bad for the inhabitants of a building if a street directly points at your apartment block. To deflect these bad influences an 8-cornered mirror will avoid the bad influence. It will reflect back the negative.

‘Taipei 101‘ is build up from 8 segments, and each of the consists of 8 floors; 8 is the lucky Chinese number. Four is the unlucky number that is why there is no 4th floor. The 101 looks like a piece of segmented bamboo. Bamboo – flexible and easy to bend, but still strong – is an old symbol for resistance and fortune. ‘Taipei 101‘ is build with a 660 tons steel sphere as a damper within, so that in the case of an earthquake the building will not break but swing only, like a bamboo stick in the wind.

Another surprise you can see in this hyper capitalistic society – more and more I hear ‘Only the one who is to lazy or has to many children is poor’ – is the burning of money. However it is not real money, but ‘money papers’ that are specially made for ritual offerings, produced and sold for that purpose. The owners burn it in metal cans in front of their stores and pray for good business. For environmental reasons nowadays there is also “money” available that does not smoke that much, but it is somewhat more expensive.

In the middle of the IT city of Taipei you can find an overload of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist temples that serve as oracle places. For example there is the City of God temple; in large numbers, young women with Gucci or Louis Vuitton handbags put flowers and fiance cookies on the altars on Saturday morning before shopping. Here the god of marriage is residing, and the young women use oracle sticks to ask questions about their upcoming spouse.

One night I visit a temple. In front of it there is a movable shrine on wheels. ‘God can be placed in there and moved around, for example on someone’s birthday’, people tell me. ‘Now God is in China, but tomorrow he will be back and there will be a procession.’ The procession is a big spectacle with lots of firecrackers, red bangle torches, riding light organs, fireworks, drums and screeching loudspeakers. The ‘God’ is a colorful painted wooden figure in a chair with long bars that is carried around the neighborhood rocking up and down on the shoulders of the bearers. And all this in an atmosphere of bright neon light. The stars in the procession are Hsie and Fan who are normally the guards of the temple annex statues. Hsie has a black face, Fan has a down hanging tongue as long as the man who wears the costume, and he looks through a hole in his shirt. Everything from the torso up the performer wears on his head. The appearance can be explained by a legend. Hsie and Fan once wanted to meet on a bridge, Hsie was somewhat early and was watching the water below the bridge and fell over in the water when he lost his balance. When Fan arrived he found his friend dead and Fan strangled himself with his bare hands. That is why his tongue is so far out of his mouth, while Hsie became black in the water. In Taipei people say that the spirits of the two roam the Manka region with heavy chains and eat the tramps and thieves. And yes in the Manka neighborhood there is less crime then in the other regions of the city.

Taipei has different monuments for their country heroes like Tsjang Kai-sjek and Sun Yat-sen. One of these places is a huge memorial hall with a more then living height statue, guards in official uniform and a lot of free space around the immortals mark the distance between them and every day life. It’s amazing how the people of the city interact with these places. If you go there at 5 in the morning, when the city is still silent, you will be surprised by a grotesque carnival. From many loudspeakers you will hear all kinds of music at the same time, marching music, hip-hop, Chinese classics, country, tango and new-age noise. Hundreds of people are gathered. Some performing taichi, others do sword fighting, some dance in the morning mist. A man and a woman of age throw over a pink frisbee. There are people in kimono, in cheerleader look, a rapper with oversized trousers and a shirt with hood. Many people there are of age and ask, “how old do you think I am?”. Mostly they are twice as old as they look. You can also see younger people dancing Salsa. All this happens at the foot of the ‘Taipei 101′. Businessmen in suit and tie hurry through the kungfu fighters and shadow boxers. Nothing of this is organized, a lot of people come regularly, but the groups change constantly.

At 7 o’clock the guards appear in parade marching steps. They raise the national flag and the national hymn starts. In a split second everybody stops with what he is doing and takes the formal pose when the national hymn is heard. It takes a few minutes and then everything goes on as nothing happened: Chinese ballet, aerobic, rock-n-roll and chi-gong. And meanwhile in the park Sun Yat-sen, ‘the father of the nation’, one time in bronze another pose in stone, looking straight forward to all the fuzz.

Peng Wu Chih is one of the most famous taichi- and kungfu masters in the country. He was the last apprentice of the famous martial arts master Liu Yun-Qiao (who was the head of security organization under Tsjang Kai-sjek). He took care of Yun-Qiao in his last months of his life, when he was so weak that he only could lecture using his chopsticks.

One of the specialities of Peng Wu Chih is ‘rapid taichi’. He claims that taichi originally was not, as nowadays, done in a turtle slow movement but fast. In between the main course and desert at a restaurant he gives a small demonstration. It only takes a few seconds. Dr. Peng loves speed in general. Before we step into his car he says, “buckle up, because I drive like James Bond”, and he does not exaggerate. He talks about ‘chi’, the life power and says: “meditation is not to withdraw from the world environment, but being present in it. Get to your opponent in half a second where others need two seconds. Never lose your midst, not even when you are busy.’ One time he holds my wrist, not firm, but I feel an immense power. He could kill me in a split second.

One of his apprentices says: ‘during the first lesson he said to me: I will kill you, and he did. During the teachings I died inside; he destroyed my value scale. The most important in martial arts is awareness, and therefore you have to get rid of your past.’

Peng Wu Chih ends the meeting with a short anecdote: “two people die and god asks them what they wish in a next life. The first says, “I want to get lots of money”, the other one says “I want to give lots of money”, the first is reborn as a beggar, the second as an millionaire.”

On the 1st of May I am in search of demonstrating people, but in vain. Taiwan does not know of demonstrations of workers. Taiwan is the dream of every neo liberal: up to a short time ago there was nothing like income insurance (for that matter, officially there were no people out of a job), no sickness insurance, no pension insurance, no social service. Everything is insured from private arrangements or by family. Some workers even give holidays to their company as a gift. Furthermore it seems that there are no building regulations; Taipei is the dream of every architect but also a nightmare, everything is possible (highlight: a building formed like a woman’s handbag).

During the visit of the Chinese president Hu Jintao to the USA Falun Gong people in Taipei organised a demonstration. This spiritual movement is forbidden in China. Lately a doctor witnessed that he had been in a Chinese concentration camp. He says that tenth of thousands of Falun Gung people have to do hard labor. He also records that these people are operated on and taken away organs, while they are alive, and sold for transplantation purposes. Anti-Chinese propaganda or not, such news remind the Taiwanese over and over again that their welfare is highly vulnerable; like a small garden on an overhanging rock. Up to 10 years ago Taiwan still had higher expenses on their military defense system then China, while nowadays China is spending triple the budget of Taiwan. 600 rockets are pointed towards Taiwan, and every year another 75 are added. A politician who mentions the taboo word “formal independence” in Taipei – and in some place in Peking someone might push the red button.

Even lately China paid the small island nation of Nauru in the Pacific Ocean the amount of 150 million dollar to change their diplomatic affairs from Taipei to Peking. Taiwan can hardly cope with this process. Taiwan can only try, behind the political scene, to keep them indispensable in economical way. But that takes a lot of energy and is a lonely task.

On the last day we drive to a “children’s recreational center”. It looks like an Asian Walt Disney park. A luxurious place, however there were no children, not one. ‘Nowadays they prefer to play at home on their computer’, a supervisor tells us; another supervisor says “most kids have courses at night”; and the guard at the entrance says: ‘The parents don’t have time to come over here with kids.’ On the way back I see a scenery while driving: an empty playground where a man in suit is making a phone call while the rain starts dripping.

Posted by Thank you for subscribing and commenting if you like what you read. ❤

5 thoughts on “Love and Loneliness in Taiwan

  1. Interesting site of imprinted glass, here is one more site which
    explain about Custom imprinted shot glasses make great wedding favors. They are also great for restaurants and bars. Coming soon, we will have recipes for our favorite shooters.
    click here
    wedding favor shot glasses

  2. Sounds like you and your friend were reading my blog? Just kidding. I, like many people, use blogging to let off steam about things that frustrate us and we feel powerless to change. Is anything wrong with this? I don’t think so.

  3. Hey Boyd, nice of you to leave a note. Actually, that essay was a reprint, but it’s just amazing how people can get so defensive especially when it comes to talking about their own hometown.


  4. It’s pretty much all surface, cynical without having insight or understanding. Foreigners rarely see under that surface much, so many of their interactions are in the realm of work and money. I’ve seen the same criticisms made of the US and places in Europe as well. *shrug* It seems to be universal to accuse those different than us of being entirely materialistic and not caring about their families. I would have said the Taiwanese care very deeply about their families, they just define them differently than westerners and educated filipinos might…


  5. Wow, honored that Michael Turton himself has left a comment on the blog. But you’re right — people have different ways of expressing feelings, obligations, etc. Just a matter of understanding more, and learning from the bad and applying the good.

Leave a Reply