Taipei: City Guide & History

Sunset taken from Elephant Mountain, Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan is a small island nation, and Taipei is its capital city. It was once part of Imperial China – but how did it become the last stronghold of the Republic of China now?

 
History
Early Settlers & Colonial Rule

So long before the city of Taipei existed, we need to cover a little of Taiwan‘s history first. The island’s first settlers were indigenous people, likely related to the Malay-Polynesian people. The Ketagalan tribes lived in the Taipei Basin, where the city would later emerge. It’s thought they came here sometime around 3000BC, and they lived in seclusion for millennia.

One of the first records of the island by Europeans came from a passing Portuguese ship, in the 16th century. They referred to it as ‘Ilha Formosa’, meaning ‘beautiful island’, and the name Formosa stuck for centuries. Later, Dutch explorers came to Asia in the 17th century, and established a colony on the island. The Spanish also built a settlement on the northern end later, but they were soon driven out again by the Dutch. Formosa existed under colonial rule for about forty years. During that time, the indigenous people were treated unfairly – as was common around the world during the European colonial era! – and some of the first ethnic Han Chinese immigrants arrived on the island, hired as labourers by the Dutch.

 
Part of Imperial China

Now, time for the pirates! Yes, really. Over the sea in China, the Ming dynasty lost power in 1644, to be replaced by the Qing, invaders from Manchuria. The Chinese merchant and pirate – see, I wasn’t kidding! – Koxinga came to Formosa to try to establish a pro-Ming base. The Taiwanese aboriginals joined his forces to fight the Dutch – hardly surprising given their treatment – and successfully defeated the colonialists in 1662. At this time, the island became the Kingdom of Tungning. This was short lived though, as China was pretty damn powerful. After a naval battle, Formosa surrendered to the Qing in 1683, and became part of Imperial China.

After that, more immigrants came to island in the 18th century, especially from the Fujian province. Immigration was limited by the Qing at first, until around 1760. When the restrictions were lifted, the Chinese flooded in. They quickly surpassed the Taiwanese indigenous population, and although the latter still survive today, the island is largely ethnically Han Chinese.

Now, we’re finally getting to Taipei’s history. It’s a pretty new city, relatively speaking! In 1709, Chinese immigrants moved into the Taipei Basin, starting small town settlements. The area soon developed economically due to its proximity to Tamsui, the island’s major foreign trade port. China created the Taipeh prefecture in 1875, separate to the rest of Taiwan. Those smaller towns grew together into Taipei, which officially became a city in 1884. China made Taiwan a province in 1887, and Taipei became its capital.

 
The Japanese Occupation

Then came the Japanese. The First Sino-Japanese War (yes, there was more than one!) broke out in 1894. It was largely about who held influence over Korea – many others also tried over the years, it was a popular little peninsula! Anyways, the Japanese won and as part of the peace settlement, China handed over Taiwan in 1895. Japan invaded and colonised a lot of countries over the years – they seem to pop up in every East Asian article!

Taiwan wasn’t happy about this though – most countries wouldn’t be! Instead of accepting the new order, the citizens declared the Republic of Formosa. They wanted to govern themselves. Japan were having none of that though! The Republic lasted just five months, until Japan successfully invaded their capital of Tainan, in the south west of the island.

So, now the island was part of Imperial Japan, meaning of course, an influx of Japanese immigrants. This colonial period had pros and cons for Taipei. It became the political capital of the island, and the Japanese essentially transformed it into more of the big, bustling city we see today. They tore down the Qing era city walls, and hugely improved the city’s infrastructure. Much of the architecture, especially public buildings, is from the Japanese-era as well. But at the same time, like most colonial rulers, the Japanese treated the local Taiwanese harshly and unfairly. There were several uprisings over the years, but none successful. Colonialism was never good for the colonised!

 
Longshan Temple, Taipei, Taiwan
The Buddhist Longshan Temple, showing Taipei’s traditions and history
 
The Chinese Civil War

Alright, now we’re getting to one of the most turbulent periods of history, for both China and Taiwan. Now, Taiwan was still owned by Japan at this time, but events in Mainland China had a massive impact on the island. Imperial China came to an end with the 1912 Xinhai Revolution. The last emperor abdicated, and the Republic of China came into existence. The Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) political party led the government. Dr Sun Yat-sen was a key player, being the first leader of the KMT party, followed by his successor, Chiang Kai-shek, who became President of the ROC.

Meanwhile however, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were gaining momentum. The Chinese Civil War was the clash between the two parties, which continued on and off in the 1920-30s. However, they hit pause in 1937 to unite against Imperial Japanese forces (there’s that Second Sino-Japanese War!). The Japanese invaded much of Asia during WWII, but eventually, with their defeat in 1945, all their colonies reverted back to their original owners. This included Taiwan, which became Chinese again, part of the ROC. Taipei was a provincial capital once more.

But then, the KMT and CCP fully went to war for the next couple of years – a very messy, chaotic time for China! In 1949, sensing their defeat, the KMT retreated to Taiwan, making Taipei their capital. The same year, the CCP declared the new People’s Republic of China (PRC).

 
The 2/28 Incident

Now Chiang Kai-shek, the head of the KMT and President of the ROC, wasn’t the nicest of guys. Considering Taipei would eventually became his new power base, he didn’t treat the people there very well. The worst example is the February 28th Incident, in 1947 (before he fled to the island fully!).

When the KMT government gained control of Taiwan, the Taiwanese quickly began to resent them. Hardly surprising, as the KMT ruled unfairly and corruptly. The tipping point came on 27th February 1947, when authorities seized contraband cigarettes from a widow saleswoman in Taipei. As they arrested her, they beat her over the head with a pistol. The surrounding citizens began to swarm the agents, leading to one of them firing a pistol into the crowd, killing a man.

Taipei was furious. Mass protests broke out the following day in several locations around Taipei. The government tried to suppress the riots, beating people to death and shooting into the crowds. More protests continued for several more weeks, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians.

This marked the beginning of the ‘White Terror’, a period of corrupt, totalitarian rule over Taiwan. Anyone who protested or showed signs of dissent, would be imprisoned. The government enacted martial law on the island, giving the military full control, which lasted until 1987. For decades, it was completely taboo to speak of the 2/28 incident. Because of the government cover-up, no one knows exactly how many died at the time.

 
The ROC in Power & the Present

After the ROC officially fled to Taiwan in 1949, things didn’t improve. The White Terror continued, with Chiang Kai-shek ruling as a dictator of a one-party state. Only after his death, in 1975, did the country slowly start to become democratic. This was largely helped by the Wild Lily student movement, in 1990, where thousands of demonstrators took to the streets. Taiwan now has other political parties, and holds direct presidential elections. In 1995, President Lee Teng-hui apologised for the 2/28 Incident, and the day is now commemorated annually.

Yet all the while, the PRC still insist that Taiwan is their territory; while the ROC insists it is the true government of China. A sort of stalemate existed between the two for years – it still does, really! Eventually, in 1971, the United Nations gave its Chinese seat to the PRC. The ROC spent years petitioning to be a member again, but still isn’t. But Taiwan continues to govern itself separately from the PRC.

However, in better news, the city of Taipei boomed at this time. Taiwan is one of the four ‘Asian Tigers’ (alongside Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea), who experienced dramatically fast economic growth after WWII – good work, Taiwan! Taipei’s population doubled to 2 million from the 1960s to 1970s. New, modern high-rise buildings began to appear. Several industries brought the city financial success, especially hi-tech electronic production. Taiwan is now a very wealthy, highly industrialised country.

 
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taiwan
The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, dedicated to the former ROC President
 
Your Visit
Significant Sites

Taipei definitely has enough things to fill a few days of sightseeing! One of the most famous locations is probably Taipei 101, that great big skyscraper. Head up to its observation deck for views of the city, and to see its giant pendulum! It also has a wealth of shops in the mall downstairs to browse. Nearby, head to Elephant Mountain for stunning sunset views.

For the history buffs, you can’t miss the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, dedicated to the former President of the ROC. The Peace Park, renamed to commemorate the 2/28 Incident, is also in the area, with the National Taiwan Museum next to it. Just south from there, you’ll find the 228 Memorial Museum, Sun Yat-sen Museum, and National Museum of History. Further north, lies the National Palace Museum, containing hundreds of artefacts brought from the Forbidden City.

Rewind further back in time with a visit to Longshan Temple, one of the city’s most famous Buddhist temples. Or, head to the Lin An Tai Ancestral House, to see how people used to live. Don’t miss the Expo Park on your way, with plenty of fun art installations around. Then hop over the river to the famous Shilin Night Market, with dozens of food stalls and other shopping options. Or, head to Ximending, the ‘Harajuku’ of Taipei for some more eclectic shops to explore! There’s lots of other temples, memorials, and markets to check out too, so there’s definitely something for everyone!

 
Outside the City

If you’ve covered most of what Taipei itself has to offer, head to the train or bus station for a day trip out of the city! Just north of the city is Yangmingshan National Park, ideal for nature lovers and hikers! If you’re interested in something more restful, visit Beitou, to the north, for its natural hot springs. There’s also Wulai, to the south, a small town with hot springs and waterfalls, where you can also see the island’s aboriginal culture. For more natural features, explore the coastline at Yehliu Geopark, known for the ‘Queen’s Head’ rock formation, as well as dozens of other unique geological features.

Another option is Tamsui, a district by the river mouth, where you can see incredible sunsets, and enjoy the food, shopping, and live music along the Fisherman’s Wharf, leading to the iconic Lover’s Bridge at the end. Or, head east to Keelung City, a bustling port city known for its night market, historic forts, and beautiful Chung Cheng Park.

You can also visit Shifen or Pingxi, both famous for their Old Streets, with railway lines running through the middle, from which people launch floating lanterns. Shifen also has a stunning waterfall park nearby. And Studio Ghibli fans won’t want to miss out on Jiufen, a mountain-side town which resembles the setting of Spirited Away, making it especially popular for Japanese tourists. Regardless, it is a maze of winding streets, full of food and shopping options, or ideal for snapping picturesque photos.

 
Taipei 101 skyscraper, Taiwan
The Taipei 101, looking to the future
 
Important Information

Language:

The official language of Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese. However, this includes both Standard Mandarin, and their own Taiwanese Mandarin (or Hokkien).

Currency:

The official currency is New Taiwan Dollars (TWD).

Transport:

Taipei has excellent public transport, making it very easy to get around. Taoyuan International Airport is the main airport, where most passengers arrive, though there is also the smaller Songshan Airport. From both, you can reach the city centre by the Taipei Metro (MRT), by taxi, or by several bus routes. See here for more details from Taoyuan, and here for Songshan.

In the city, the MRT or the buses are easy ways to get around. Taxis are readily available too, and many city centre sights are within walking distance of each other. To see other parts of the country, head to Taipei Station for the railway lines, or check for bus routes for locations nearer the city. Renting a car is also always an option!

Public holidays:

Many Taiwanese public holidays are set according to the Lunar calendar, as in other East Asian countries, so the dates vary each year. There are also unofficial holidays besides these that some businesses may choose to observe.

1st January – New Year’s Day & Republic Day

Late Jan or early Feb (5 days) – Lunar New Year

28th February – Peace Memorial Day

4th April – Children’s Day

Early April – Qingming (Tomb Sweeping) Day

Early June – Tuen Ng (Dragon Boat) Festival

Late Sep or early Oct – Mid Autumn Festival

10th October – National Day

 

Have you visited Taipei before? Leave a comment about your experience!

Check out my personal experience visiting!

Check out more places to see in Taiwan!

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