The first official day of tour brought an interesting inversion. Instead of bemoaning the Asian tourists blocking the pathways in Harvard Yard at 9:00 AM, we were the Harvard tourists clambering off the bus at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial. Being part of a large group adds an element of self-consciousness to tourism which is absent when visiting on one’s own.
We entered what is now named Liberty Square through the Gate of Great Loyalty:
The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial was undergoing restoration, so a large scaffold and its white safety netting wrapped around the upper, shrine-shaped part of the memorial. We learned from our tour guide that the Memorial has 89 steps, to represent Chiang Kai-Shek’s age when he died, and that it has been at the center of a discussion of how Taiwan should relate to the founder of its contemporary political state. We took the elevator to the fourth floor, and watched the changing of the guard in front of Chiang Kai-Shek in the “Abraham Lincoln” pose from the Lincoln memorial. Following Chiang Kai-Shek’s gaze, I looked out over a grand courtyard at the National Theater and the National Concert Hall, where we will perform in a few days. As we prepared to go back down to the first floor, I learned that if a tourist got too close to the soldiers standing guard, the soldiers slam the butts of their rifles into the ground to scare the tourist. On the ground floor, I looked at the cars Chiang Kai-Shek used when he was a general and then a president. The cars were one of my memories from my first trip to Taipei, so it was good to see them again.
The next stop was the Longshan temple, where Buddhists and Taoists gather together to pray. The temple is over two hundred years old, and it’s interesting to look at the architecture, and the way the restoration slowly creeps forward. The tour guide narrated what goes on at the temple on a regular basis: people bring offerings of cakes, fruits, flowers, burn incense, toss stones, and pray to various different gods for success and wisdom. I was struck by the vast disparity between Taoism, in which a human can become a god through constant moral striving, and Christianity, which says that constant moral striving is powerless to change human’s hearts, that only God has that power.
We ate lunch on the bus, a lunchbox of rice, cabbage, a tea egg, and a chicken cutlet, and then drove to the National Palace Museum, a place which, in my memory, was just the source of a souvenir t-shirt. Students from the local Taiwan International School gave us a guided tour of the museum, demonstrating their knowledge of the artifacts and their ability to navigate the large holiday crowds. As we listened through our headsets, we learned about emperors who put their stamp of approval on artwork, emperors who fell in love with their consort’s younger sister, emperors who consoled their wife over the loss of their son by commissioning a group of chicken tea cups, emperors who created the first standardized weight of rice, emperors who build bells to commemorate their victories- many years of decadence, but also ingenuity and beauty.
From the National Palace Museum we went to a night market to get dinner. I had a bowl of wonton soup and noodles, some soup dumplings, and a cold mango juice for dessert. A few of my friends tried shaved ice for the first time, and it was exciting to see them enjoy a food I have enjoyed since childhood. As we waited for the bus to bring us back to the hotel, I tried to get some egg custard, but in the process of translating ended up with a collection of hot pot foods instead.
Rehearsals start tomorrow, and I’m eager to start singing again. But it was quite fun to play the tourist for once!