TAIPEI, TAIWAN — The staff at Taipei's elegant Palace Hotel was more than gracious. Far more.
First a knockout bouquet of fragrant pink-and-white Asian lilies appeared in my room. Later a bowl towering with fresh fruit and Swiss chocolates arrived. Then a note signed by the hotel's assistant general manager:
"Dear Mr. Yong [sic], We are delighted that you have chosen our hotel to hold your wedding ceremony.... Congratulations and best wishes. If there is anything I can do...."
Having spent my life happily unmarried (so far), and with no immediate plans to change, I thought I'd better check my itinerary, just in case.
Whew, no mention of my wedding, just plans to visit some of the city's highlights and especially the Taipei Lantern Festival.
Held annually on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar new year, lantern festivals have been a part of Chinese culture since 206 BC.
Small red lanterns by the thousands bob above the sidewalks around Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, where the main festivities are held
The "Hall," so-called, is actually a sprawling 62-acre park of lawns and gardens that contain the National Theater, National Concert Hall, and a building dedicated to Chiang Kai-shek. A 25-foot bronze statue of this salt merchant's son, who rose to become president of the Republic of China, gazes benevolently from his elevated seat toward mainland China, where, it is said, he hopes someday to return.
From the memorial hall, the Boulevard of Homage runs to the majestic main Gate of Great Centrality and Perfect Uprightness, bisecting the expansive field.
The park is an oasis of tranquility in this hustle-bustle prosperous capital, a quiet place where families and young lovers stroll among the half-million bedding plants and stands of pine trees, or stop to reflect by two serene ponds dancing with colorful koi.
Up to 100,000 people have come from around Taiwan to take part in the Lantern Festival. Though celebrations go on throughout the country in the many temples and parks, here is where most Taiwanese choose to be.
Schoolchildren by the busload, wearing bright, fringed trousers, horse around while waiting their turn to perform traditional dances. (The satiny pants are soon to become the "legs" of dragon and lion costumes they will don.)
Others sit quietly in circles munching yan hsiao - pale, round dumplings filled with sweet bean paste - a traditional snack for this holiday.
Finally, with a crash of cymbals and blaring horns, a troop of 12 boys rolls out a dozen mammoth kettle drums. Dwarfed by the instruments, they pound out a beat, alerting the first fidgety young dancers as they scamper under their dragon and lion outfits.
While one youngster manipulates the bobbing head, with its Pierre Sallinger eyebrows and snapping jaws, others scurry behind, supporting the long undulating body.
More dancing follows, including 100-foot dragons, some even on in-line skates, and traditional and ethnic performers. Then acrobats dressed as circus animals hop from towering pillar to pillar to the delight and gasps of the crowds.
As the afternoon darkens and rain threatens, toddlers carrying small paper-dragon lanterns begin to dot the darkness like so many fireflies.
The festival ends with an endless speech by outgoing president Lee Teng-hui. Castroesque in length, the speech has the restless audience hooting and chanting. Finally the magic moment arrives and Lee pulls a switch lighting the gala celebration's centerpiece - a giant fire-breathing, smoke-spewing, 40-foot-high dragon lantern. As streaks of laser light pierce the damp night, the lighted beast slowly rotates in the rain, while the drenched crowd pours out of the park.
It continues to rain steadily for the next six days, washing out our plans to explore Yangmingshan National Park and poke around the various night markets.
It is perfect weather, though, for visiting the National Palace Museum, Asia's bookend to the Louvre. The classical-style buildings house a staggering collection of Chinese art, the largest and most extensive on the planet. Paintings, bronzes, books, calligraphy, furniture, porcelains, and jade make up most of the 600,000-piece collection. So vast is this trove that every three months stored treasures are pulled from the museum's dark underground vaults and rotated for public viewing. It is said it would take 12 years to see the entire collection.
Much of the treasure was gathered over the centuries (by whatever means), by a series of art-grabbing emperors on the mainland, where it was guarded by eunuchs and cloistered from unworthy eyes in Beijing's Forbidden City.
"Come and see our 'Mona Lisa,' " our guide pants, after a marathon blur of three floors of artifacts.
There behind a lighted glass case is no pair of haunting eyes, no enigmatic smile, but - a cabbage. A small, opaque shaft of green and white jade exquisitely carved in the shape of a common vegetable. complete with a grasshopper, camouflaged on the top of a green leaf. This jewel from the Ching Dynasty is but one of 4,636 jade pieces here.
The best way to tackle this museum maze is to do a cursory run-through to get an idea of what is on view, then go back to where your particular interests lead.
Be sure to see the documentary film depicting how this massive collection was moved around mainland China by train, truck, raft, and ox cart, with the invading Japanese, and later the communist Chinese, in hot pursuit. After World War II, the 20,000 cases of treasure were brought back to Nanking and finally, when communism threatened, the best of the collection was brought to Taiwan.
Whether you have 12 hours in Taipei or 12 years, here is where you could spend the bulk of your stay.
Several other cultural experiences in this country should not be missed.
To me, a cup of tea means zapping a mug of water and a Lipton flow-through tea bag in the microwave. Here, it's done with a little more detail. The tea ceremony has risen to an art in China since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). We gleaned some insights into this ritual at a special Mid-Autumn Festival of Tea, Zen, Flowers, and Music sponsored by the Taipei Tea Promotional Center in the mountain district of Mucha.
We sat around small tables, each with an exquisite flower arrangement, while women in olive-hued kimono-like dress poured tea from ceramic teapots, no larger than tennis balls. We sipped fragrantly perfumed Pao Chung, Tung-ting Oolong, and Goddess of Mercy teas from cups not much bigger than thimbles. Poetry was read, sweets were nibbled and a small orchestra of ancient Chinese instruments were played under the direction of teacher and Zen master, Lin Ku-Fang.
Similar, less-elaborate ceremonies are performed in many tea houses throughout Taiwan.
If you're a dyed-in-the-silk culture vulture, you may want to attend a Chinese Opera. (Or maybe not.)
Steeped in tradition and ritual, the performances are a brilliant display of symbolic gesture, mime, and music. The characters, defined by exaggerated face makeup, perform in elaborately embroidered costumes that rival the House of Versace. But be warned, the high-pitched, shrill, monotone singing has been likened to a tomcat out on the town. All this punctuated by gongs, viola, and wooden clappers doesn't help. An evening of Chinese opera could have you begging for a Yanni TV "special." OK, it's not that bad, but to this uninitiated Westerner's taste, it's more eye- than-ear-candy.
A more modern cultural activity of bad singing, Chinese chutzpah, and fun takes place nightly in the many karaoke bars in Taipei. Here, you can rent a room and make a fool out of yourself in front of friends and perfect strangers. One very sweet, demure Asian woman in our party barely said "boo" all week - until karaoke night. With a vice-grip on a mike and canned music blaring, a metamorphosis took place. The usually reserved woman, snarling out soul-rock, became Tina Turner before our eyes.
All in all, Taipei has much going for it. Along with Western-style comforts, it has retained enough exotica to make it an interesting destination. (Are you listening, Singapore?)
There's also a noticeable effort being made to green-up the city with more parks, streets with tree-lined medians, and a thrust toward environmental awareness. Witness the 40-foot Christmas tree (still standing in March) in the Grand Hotel lobby made of green plastic soda bottles. And, let it be noted, Taipei has the best, most varied Chinese food anywhere and some remarkable shopping as well.
I can't recommend the city as a honeymoon destination. Not from personal experience anyway. There's far too much going on outside your hotel - even if the weather doesn't cooperate. And to Mr. Yong, if out there, congratulations on your wedding. But I honestly believe I had as good a time in Taipei as you.
*For information , contact the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office: 1 World Trade Center (Suite 7953), New York, NY 10048, Tel. 212-466-0691
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society