Taiwan Guide is a love letter to this beautiful island that means the world to so many of us. Small but packed with culture. Often overlooked, but the energetic underdog with so much to offer beyond boba, beef noodle soup and absurd amounts of motor scooters.
This is a celebration of the little island that could. This is more than a travel guide, more of a lifestyle guide, something that can offer value whether it’s your first time visiting or if you’re just looking for fresh recommendations.
Taiwan Guide aims to bridge the gap for English-speaking travelers who want to understand Taiwanese culture and discover everything Taiwan has to offer, while uplifting the everyday Taiwanese experience. This isn’t a one-stop shop for planning, but a place to get inspired (dw, there will be plenty of links out to all the relevant resources you need for actual planning).
Taiwan may be small, but there are endless different ways to explore, and whether it’s the traditional or the modern, the culture or the nature, the food or the shopping, there’s something for everyone if you know where to look. Taiwan Guide has a lot of ways in: if you’re visiting a specific region, explore geographically. If you’re trying to decide where to eat while you’re in town, go straight to the recs. If you want an itinerary to start with, here’s where to go. And if you have any questions, feel free to reach out!
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
Taiwan is a cultural amalgam that is as much a product of history and geography as it is of social development. Often overlooked (literally) because of its small size, Taiwan is like a compact package of some of the best Asia has to offer. Perhaps the most influential ambassador for Taiwanese culture is its food. Din Tai Fung and bubble tea diplomacy, if you will. That in itself is pretty telling of the essence of Taiwan. All you really need to understand is that it’s a foodie culture is the purest form. Everything else is built around that.
GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE
In case you stumbled upon this page by means of a Thailand typo or something, let’s start with the basics.
Taiwan is a small island off the coast of China. To the north are Japan and Korea. To the south, the Philippines. It is very much a Pacific island when it comes to the humid weather and tendency for earthquakes and typhoons. It’s also very mountainous (thanks to the earthquakes): nearly a third of the island is over 1,000m above sea level. At 36,193 sq km, it is a little bigger than the state of Maryland, but has a population closer to that of Texas (it would be right behind California and Texas if ranked by population). About a third of the population lives in greater Taipei – the capital and biggest city in Taiwan.
There is a really interesting socio-economic-linguistic-cultural-political cross section when you map out Taiwan geographically. Generally, the further south and east you move from Taipei, the more rural it gets. Also, the more Taiwanese (Hokkien, the dialect) you’ll hear compared to Mandarin. People in Taipei are (as city people usually are) wealthier, more educated, more liberal, more likely to know English. Even though Taiwan is a small country, rural Taitung feels like a distinct world from Taipei, the political and economic capital of Taiwan. Most of the population lives on the western part of the island, where cities dot the coast and are efficiently linked by the high speed railway. On the other side of the central mountains, the east side is full of lush (& sparsely populated) natural landscape.
Taiwan is made up of 22 “administrative districts” that include counties, cities and a few islands. Some are urban and cosmopolitan. Others are remote and peaceful. But no matter where you are, you’re never more than a couple km away from the nearest 7-Eleven. The culture of convenience permeates all of Taiwan.
As you may expect, given where Taiwan is situated on the globe, Taiwan has a tropical climate. Though there is some variation in the different regions around the country, summers generally mean extreme heat and humidity. Rain every day (though usually not all day). Winters (and the high altitude mountains) are cooler and marginally less rainy. Early spring and mid to late autumn are the sweet spots for warm but comfortable weather.
Flooding, typhoons, earthquakes are common occurrences. Life continues on weather agnostic: severe storms mean people get the day off, but while half the population hoards ramen (srsly, the whole aisle in 7-Eleven is gone) and hole up indoors, the rest of the crazies are out and about enjoying life (afternoon tea, midnight karaoke parties, you better hop on those reservations!).
The tropical climate makes for abundant and diverse flora and fauna. From “exotic” fruits to high mountain teas, Taiwan is definitely #blessed when it comes to produce. The farmers take their jobs seriously and have spoiled locals to be very particular about the sweetness of fruit. Taiwanese people take pride in high standards for fruits and vegetables, and you can always expect the freshest seasonal produce sold straight from the backs of trucks, on the streets and in traditional outdoor markets.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TAIWAN, AND SOME POLITICAL CONTEXT
To begin with, Taiwan has several names. From Ilha Formosa to the Republic of China (ROC, not to be confused with PROC) to Taiwan. What’s in a name? A lot of politics and history, actually.
In the 16th century, Portuguese sailors passed Taiwan and dubbed it Ilha Formosa, beautiful island. Over the next century, Taiwan fell briefly under Spanish and Dutch rule (you can still visit Dutch forts today). Insert a lot of violent and inhumane treatment to the aboriginal people (which, by the way, continues with every power and wave of immigrants over the centuries). Political turmoil in China led Ming loyalists to run out the Dutch, and the new Qing dynasty to try to limit immigration to Taiwan over the next hundred years or so.
From the late 18th century into the early 19th century, more people immigrated from China, primarily from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces. These were the early Han settlers. There were also Hakka settlers as well (a sub-group of Han Chinese that speak Hakka 客家). Throughout the 1800s, there were some conflicts between different groups, plus a lot of threats of foreign invasions: Britain, America, France, etc (no different than the rest of the world).
And then comes Japan.
The Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) ended with the Qing dynasty ceding Taiwan to Japan. Here’s where history and culture really start to come together. Taiwan was under Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945 (aka the end of WWII). These 50 years were formative years for Taiwan. This is when infrastructure was implemented and a culture unique from China was developed. It’s no coincidence that Taiwanese (Hokkien) dialect songs sound like old Japanese music. It’s a complicated relationship, to say the least. There was raping and pillaging, but there was also a lot of modern development that came with Japanese rule. To this day, Taiwan probably owes its infrastructural foundation to this era. A lot of architecture and general Japanese-era culture has been preserved and memorialized throughout Taiwan.
But of course during WWII, things got a little messy. Taiwan was physically in the middle of global powers and was completely under Japanese rule. During this time, Taiwanese people were forced to assimilate to Japan. Children were educated in Japanese (the older population sometimes speaks Japanese more fluently than Mandarin), many adopted Japanese names, and Japanese religion was instituted. All on top of the horrors of war that Japan was imposing across Asia. Meanwhile, the Allies were trying to return Taiwan to China.
Of course, ultimately, Japan was forced out. Most of the Japanese people go back to Japan, and the oppressive Kuomingtang (KMT) government takes over. Meanwhile in China, there’s a whole other mess: the Chinese Civil War. The Republic of China capital was moved to Taiwan as they fought the Communist party, and many mainlanders came along, feeling the war. These groups formed neighborhoods and enclaves, half assimilating to Taiwanese society. To this day, there is still somewhat of a distinction between those who have been in Taiwan before the Civil War, and those who came because of that. Generally, they are referred to as 外省人 waishengren aka people from a different province. Almost like “out of state.” Somewhat derogatory, but has faded in use among younger generations.
On February 28, 1947, there was what is now known as the 2/28 massacre. An uprising was violently put out, thousands of civilians were killed, and so began the period of White Terror. This period of martial law would last over 38 years, until 1987. This horrific incident was finally publicly acknowledged in the 90s by President Lee Teng Hui, who also named February 28 as a day of remembrance.
All of this was happening against the backdrop of the Cold War. Essentially, it was the same global forces at work. There was the threat of the Communists nearby, and of course the US throwing weight behind anything against Communism. For a while, Taiwan – the Republic of China, was the officially recognized government of China. Of course this and the One-China policy controversy still continues today.
Over the late 80s and 90s, Taiwan was increasingly democratized and “Taiwanized,” distinctly evolving from the Chinese roots. The first opposition party to KMT, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was established in 1986. President Lee made reforms that favored localization of the culture, economy, education, etc. The first direct presidential election in 1996 prompted an international conflict as China attempted to intimidate and influence the election. The crisis prompted then-president Bill Clinton to dispatch military power to monitor the situation. Lee ended up winning re-election.
The 2000 election put the first DPP president, Chen Shui Bian into office. His presidency was a mess: it included an assassination attempt and ended with a life sentence. It was full of juicy scandal well worth the Wikipedia rabbit hole…but for now let’s fast forward to today. Like the US, Taiwan has a two party system. Unlike the US, the political parties are divided more by governing and diplomacy stances rather than social issues. Essentially, KMT is more open to cooperation with China while DPP is more focused on independence. The current president, Tsai Ying Wen (first female president of Taiwan) is from the DPP party.
Today, Taiwan is a democracy with a disputed and controversial political status. Largely due to the democratic status, Taiwan became a strong economic force in Asia early on, one of the “Four Asian Tigers.” Before “Made in China” it was “Made in Taiwan.” The little island had a disproportionate influence over the region. Of course, the power dynamics have shifted in recent decades. Just as the Korean War defines so much of the way South Korea exists today, Taiwan’s multi-cultural historic influences and socio-political nuances shape the everyday life of Taiwanese people. Taiwan takes pride in its democracy, and carries tenacity of a people who have to be active ambassadors every day just to get the world to acknowledge their existence and legitimacy. For visitors, this means they are welcoming hosts eager to share their culture and grateful for any attention.
CULTURE & RELIGION
The openness of the political and economic landscape also made Taiwan the center of Chinese (Mandarin) popular culture. Still today, a lot of the biggest pop stars come to Taiwan to be discovered, because of the established music industry and mentors. People from China, Malaysia, Singapore, all “made it” in Taiwan, which translated to fame across Asia.
But the foundation of Taiwanese culture is hardly music. Unlike the US, the biggest cultural export isn’t the media. It’s food. If you only know one thing about Taiwan, it better be this: Taiwan has an excellent food scene. As in, the culture is the food, and the food is the culture. They are one and the same. So to understand Taiwanese culture, all you gotta do is pick up a pair of chopsticks or take a loop around a night market. And to fully immerse in Taiwanese culture, you just need to have be able to recite your boba order as easily as a white girl’s Starbucks order.
If there’s another thing you should know about Taiwan, it’s that there are an obscene amount of convenience stores per capita. After you visit a 7-Eleven in Taiwan, you’ll never look at 7-Elevens the same. The foundation of Taiwanese society is convenience. When they say “always open” they mean it.
Another important aspect of culture is religion. Taiwan is primarily Buddhist and Daoist, sometimes blended with local folk religions. Interestingly, as Taiwan underwent rapid development, rather than getting more secular, there was actually a growth in Buddhism. Religion is a huge part of daily life in Taiwan. There are over 12,000 Buddhist and Taoist temples, and many families also have altars in their homes to pay respect to the gods as well as ancestors. Often markets (& night markets) are centered around a neighborhood temple. Temples are everywhere, big and small, and a routine part of life. Prayer days mean altars and incense at every storefront, and sometimes parades through the streets.
Culturally, Taiwanese society is one of the most progressive in Asia. In May 2017, it was the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. Taiwanese society is also very environmentally aware. Pollution had gotten pretty bad over the decades of economic development, so every citizen takes it upon themselves to recycle, while governments and businesses have also taken steps toward environmental protection. Sustainability isn’t controversial here, but a communal effort for a society that is environmentally conscious.
Most importantly (from a traveler’s perspective, at least), Taiwanese society is very open to the different. Taiwan has always been influenced by a mix of other cultures, so learning and adaptation of different cultures is welcomed and celebrated. Locals are genuinely interested in visitors from other countries and backgrounds whether as close as Japan or as far as South Africa. There is general religious tolerance as well. There are small populations of Christians and Muslims, and the majority religions (Buddhism, Taoism, folk religions) are often practiced in a blended form.
PEOPLE & LANGUAGE
Taiwanese people are absurdly friendly and welcoming. Like the kind of friendly where a stranger would not only give directions, but also walk you do your destination. The kind of welcoming where servers at popular restaurants are required to know English and Japanese to accommodate tourists. They are genuinely eager to learn about people that are different. People are very talkative. Even in the cities, people chat with taxi drivers, bus drivers, store owners in a small town way. It’s normal to have political conversations, ask for advice and recommendations, discuss social (& personal!) issues with strangers.
In smaller towns, everyone is treated like family. In Taiwanese culture, you show love through food, so people are always trying to feed you, bringing local treats and gifts. You don’t have to go out of your way to get an “authentic” experience: Taiwanese people are always eager to show you their go-to spots and give you samples of local delicacies. Even if you’re pretty sure it’s something you can’t take home, it’s probably still best to graciously accept and then pawn it off to a local friend before you go. Also, if you are ever invited into someone’s home, you should bring some sort of treat with you (even if it’s just something you pick up from a bakery on the way there), to share with your hosts. A lot of shops sell decoratively packaged treats for this reason.
~ 歡迎光臨 ~
The hospitality is reflected in the service industry. Taiwan has some of the best service in the world, likely a reflection of Japanese influence. It’s in the little things, but definitely noticeable to people unfamiliar with this culture. Every store you enter in, whether a fancy boutique or a 7-Eleven, you’ll be greeted with a verbal welcome by basically anyone within earshot. At many restaurants, they give you a separate basket to put your bags and coats and cover it so it doesn’t get any sauce or oil on it. At Din Tai Fung, they practically station someone at every other table to refill your tea as soon as you take a sip. At many restaurants, waiters will come around throughout the meal to swap out plates to clean ones.
In some department stores, there are uniformed women operating the elevator. They ask you what floor you are going to, push the button with gloved hands, and announce at each floor which way the elevator is headed. If you arrive at a department store right as it opens, not only do you hear a welcome song blaring from the speakers, you will also encounter a line of uniformed workers bowing and welcoming you as you walk past, and the same polite welcome as you make your way wherever you’re headed. Workers are required to stand outside their booth or kiosk or shop and do this for the first 15 minutes or so.
Taiwanese culture is difficult to sum up in one bucket. It’s quite a bit Chinese, with heavy Japanese influence, but it also embraces the tropical island culture too. Demographically, most of the population is ethnically Chinese (over 95%), and about 2% are aboriginal. Within the Chinese population, there is the Hakka and Han (pre & post 1940) subgroups hailing from different regions of mainland China.
The official language of Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese, and pretty much the entire population understands Mandarin, though some more fluent than others. It’s the language taught in schools and the language (usually) spoken in government and formal settings. The spoken language is the same as the Mandarin spoken in Mainland China, but with different accents and sometimes different vocabulary (think: English in the US vs UK). The written language is different. Taiwan is a bastion of traditional Chinese (Hong Kong also uses traditional), while China has adopted simplified Chinese. In terms of phonetics, Taiwan doesn’t use hanyu pinyin like China, which is why the romanization is often inconsistent (you can tell by how people spell last names, and general city and street names as well – looking @ you Kaohsiung). Children learn how to “spell” using zhuyin, which is a phonetic system with 37 characters (not romanized).
The Hokkien dialect (also sometimes called Taiwanese or Fujianese), is also widely spoken and understood by a majority of the population, usually in more conversational, informal terms. If you thought Chinese is difficult with the 5 tones, Hokkien has 8. There are media outlets that broadcast in Taiwanese, and an entire genre of pop culture (TV dramas, music, live entertainment) in the dialect. Generally, people in more rural or southern areas tend to speak more Taiwanese. While some vocabulary and syntax is different, it is written in the same characters as Mandarin Chinese. Contemporary slang often mixes the two dialects in creative ways.
Another dialect is Hakka, which is spoken by the Hakka subpopulation. They are the second biggest ethnic population, mostly living in northwestern Taiwan. Most Hakka people speak Mandarin fluently. In many regions of Taiwan, announcements will be repeated in Mandarin, Hokkien and Hakka (not to mention English and Japanese).
The small aboriginal population is made up of 16 tribes, each with their own language. Many of the younger generations don’t really speak the languages anymore. However, there has been a cultural resurgence in recent decades as prominent singers of aboriginal descent have brought the culture of their tribes into mainstream conscience.