Gray clouds over gray concrete, a reed-covered island between gray waters. It ran out to a sandbank from which two dogs looked over to the shore. Pirates on the Ark, the freest strays in town. Unlike the Seine, Spree, Danube, or Thames, the Tamsui is not the city’s center but its border, separating Taipei from the wider metropolitan region of New Taipei. A narrow bike path ducked under bridges and past dam walls. Parking lots shared space with lush playgrounds and sports facilities, all equally empty in the drizzling December rain. It had been nearly a year since I first reached the city across one of these bridges in a quarantined cab during the Covid pandemic. In the meantime, work, everyday life, and small weekend excursions had become home, a cozy bubble that – in its growing familiarity – innocently kept the fascinating foreign farther away with each passing day.
Ilha Formosa, the beautiful island; it is this name under which Taiwan first appeared on the maps of European traders, missionaries, mercenaries, and other adventurers at the end of the 16th century. Foaming seas and steaming jungles, it was a pearl of the Orient, dazzling and dangerous; its cliffs a refuge for pirates, its gorges home to feared natives (skull collectors! necromancers!), its majestic mountain ranges the daughters of violent plate shifts and sisters of major earthquakes, its bays the birth cradle of the peoples of the Pacific. Thousands of years before the Dutch and Spanish used the island as a gateway to China, Maori myths were born on its shores. Then, Taiwan’s brief European chapter ended between 1662 and 1668, when after 58 years of settlement the western foreigners were driven off the island after skirmishes and sieges by Koxinga, a gifted Ming Dynasty general.
In the following 350 years, Taiwan became prize and prey in the games of the powers of East Asia, passing through the hands of the Qing Dynasty, Japan, and – escaping the grip of communist China – Chiang Kai-Chek’s Kuomintang, before arising into the circle of democratic nations in the 1990s at last – almost, at least. Since the United Nations replaced the seats of the Republic of China (Taiwan) with those of the People’s Republic of China in 1971, Taiwan’s diplomatic status has been contentious. It is a country the size of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, with the population of Scandinaia, and the economic power of Australia (in GDP PPP) that for many states does officially not exist.
I came to to Taiwan by chance. When my wife got the opportunity to apply to become head of a German NGO office and we decided to take this step together, her position was still listed for Hong Kong. Then history happened in 2020. When the dust settled and the decision to move the office to Taipei was made, I hardly knew anything about Taiwan, except that it was in Asia, produced computer chips, raised the hacker collective g0v, and that its national language is Mandarin. I have now visited my first g0v hackathon, still hardly speak Mandarin, Taiwan’s computer chips now make it regularly into the headlines of European news, and while much is still foreign, the country and especially its people are bedded deeper into my heart with each passing day. I share this fascination with other guests who, like my wife and me, have settled here following fate’s winding paths. At least until – for most of us – it is one day time to say goodbye.
In the meantime, hardly a month goes by without the New York Times, Guardian, or Spiegel commenting on an announcement by the CCP that (in historical ignorance) promises to “reintegrate” Taiwan into Communist China; hardly a week goes by without a squadron of PLA fighter jets entering Taiwan’s ADIZ without permission. For its 18th issue in 2021, Taiwan filled the cover of the Economist, blue on black, a radar centered over the island, ships looming in the west. The headline: “The most dangerous place on earth.” Meanwhile, U.S. military circles debate whether the Chinese army would be able to take the island by force in three, five, or ten years. Two to four years is the time we will still stay. Yet, however dark these issues loom, it is one thing to live with them when you know your family is in Europe, your salary is in euros, and your name is on the list of the Foreign Office of your home country. It is a different one when your ancestors are buried here.
At the same time, Taiwan is not only threatened to be an old country when weighting its age against its unknown fate. Casting these thoughts aside, it is first and foremost a young country, still eager to understand its history and find an identity. As the cathedral-like shopping malls tower over ancient temples, the fast pulse of a digitalized industrial society outgrows the traditions of millennia-old culture. And while the flow of Qi Gong or traditional fan and sword dances are enjoyed at dawn, calligraphy and tea rituals at dusk, it is Pride Month, TikTok, and electric cars that dominate the day. And thus, scenarios of doom tend to be quickly wiped from omnipresent smartphone screens, replaced by games, bargains, chats, and snapshots of dogs. Unlike in Europe, when you ask a person here about their dreams, their gaze goes forward, rather than to a nostalgic past that never has been yet. After all, what are years when rent is due at the end of the month, the weekend hiking trip needs to be planned, and your girlfriend is waiting for you at the café? And so the heavy beat of historical time mixes with the rhythm of life buzzing in the big cities and the ticking of the clock measuring our visit. It is the click of my camera that allows to freeze this concert for a moment, to capture the small scene in front of the lens.
A cloud of thoughts like these went through my mind, back in December, when I saw myself eye to eye with the dogs on the sandbank at the Tamsui river. With how much frustration and how much love will I say goodbye to this island one day? How close will I have let it get to me, how close will it have let me get to it? What will live on in me and it from our encounter? Will it be more than a few grains of memory, a few footprints on a sandbank?
In that rainy December, I planted the seed that grew into this. I want to share the impressions that can be captured, be it faces or fabulous island scenery. Even more than capturing moments, I want to try to trace the flow of time revealing itself through the stories of its inhabitants. Maybe the free dogs can be a role model, when I stray with others through the city, sharing “time in Taiwan”.