Exploring Taipei's unique cultural offerings

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The front gate at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei.
The front gate at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. Photo Credit: Rob Garratt

Taiwan is not open to U.S. tourism as of this writing. For the latest information, visit .

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Viewed from a certain anthropological angle, Taiwan's singular history has midwifed a fascinating land of paradoxes, a potent parallel universe of Chinese cultural history. Quietly park the obvious and never-ending geopolitical tensions and to a mere tourist, the self-governed island presents a face both more modern and more liberal than China, yet in some senses more, well, Chinese. 

Established in 1949 by the fleeing Kuomintang government, the territory officially known as the Republic of China escaped the tradition-destroying ravages of Mao's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, instead embracing the free market. The result? A place where traditions have been clung to more deeply -- or at least remained undisturbed -- than in mainland China, while Western values and cultures have simultaneously been adopted with relative ease.

新沙巴体育Add the lingering hangover of 50 years of Japanese rule to the mix, and Taiwan's heritage, affluence and distinct identity collectively fueled an early-21st-century reputation as one of the region's coolest cultural incubators. 

Taiwan's capital, Taipei, is the kind of city that hosts an annual cat-themed film festival, and for young indie acts in the region, it's still the hippest thing to score a gig at one of Taiwan's dozens of festivals. 

The result, then, is a land simultaneously eyed enviously and anxiously by mainland Chinese. Take the National Palace Museum, where busloads of mainland tour groups descend daily to marvel at its exhaustingly endless aisles of East Asian art -- more than 600,000 items from across 8,000 years -- the bulk of which was hurriedly ferried from Beijing and Nanjing in the 1930s and '40s before the Kuomintang fled. 

More relevant to the here and now is the excellent Fine Arts Museum, a sleek, airy structure programming world-class retrospectives of regional and international names. Those more committed to emerging voices might check out the smaller, edgier Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei, housed in an old, red brick building that used to serve as city hall.

Also worth a visit is the cozy Taiwan Design Museum, if just to stroll the surrounding Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, one of Taipei's many breezily refreshing, tongue-twistingly named public spaces, which holistically correlate fresh air and foliage with culture and commerce. 

The Fine Arts Museum also sits amid the sprawling Taipei Expo Park, a large, outdoor area that houses several public buildings -- including the International Pavilion of Indigenous Arts and Cultures, recognizing the Ketagalan tribes who called the island home before the 19th century's influx of Han Chinese -- and the Eco Ark, a 280-foot-tall ode to environmentalism constructed entirely with plastic bottles. 

The island's checkered history, and uncertain future, never feels far from mind. Downtown sits the 228 Peace Memorial Park, unfolding around the unmistakable but tastefully serene Taipei 228 Memorial, commemorating the Feb. 28, 1947, massacre that presaged the White Terror, a then-internationally unprecedented period of martial law, which was not lifted until 1987.

新沙巴体育It sits incongruously close to the least-frequented but most guidebook-worthy of public spaces, the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a monument to the revolutionary leader who founded and led the Republic of China through this period to his death in 1975. Elegantly lit at night, the stately, empty public square is bookended by the traditionally styled twin National Theater and National Concert Hall buildings. 

I had half a mind to catch a performance there by Taiwan's National Symphony Orchestra, but my arm was easily twisted into instead visiting nearby Revolver, an expat-friendly hangout with a proud "no Coldplay" policy, pouring happy hour pints for about $3 and hosting local bands in a cramped upstairs room.

新沙巴体育I might have stuck around for a night of "drill 'n' bass ambient pop" if not for the presence, a couple of metro stops away, of the lukewarm oddity that is the Blue Note Taipei. The shabby, fourth-floor jazz club's logo has made every attempt to emulate that of its illustrious New York counterpart, which has sprouted official outposts from Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro. And yet the waitress' evil eye answering my honest inquiry confirmed my suspicions. Founded in 1974, this genuine fake was 100% made in the Republic of China.

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