Actually, for nit-pickers, we did not spend Christmas in the tropics. The Tropic of Cancer does pass through Taiwan but we were somewhat to the north of it and would not have experienced the phenomenon that defines the boundaries – the shadow less noon – since it was winter. Sunny nevertheless, but not too hot – in fact quite chilly in the evening due to the high humidity, especially in the mountains where we saw in the new year of 2018.
So much for the weather report – now for Christmas memories of Taiwan. On this, our seventh visit, our son told me that he first came to the place fifteen years ago. He now has a house, an indigenous wife, two lovely kids, two characterful cats, a dippy dog, a white car and two black scooters. Ah, the scooters: so many of them, pouring out of junctions, converging on hapless pedestrians, buzzing along pathways hardly wide enough for a walker, transporting valuable cargo which ranges from bags of groceries to entire families including tiny, helmetless, children. This time I spotted a new twist: a squat, tight–eyed man had fitted a chromium bar above the handlebars of his machine and on this sat two colourful parrots enjoying the passing breeze.
Scooters are parked everywhere, but the favourite spots are right outside the busy shops which crowd what would be pavements in the UK. Such things do not exist here: the roadway simply blends chaotically with glass shop fronts, outside displays, tables and chairs and, of course, parked scooters and cars. Amazingly, change is afoot: pavements are being created in Judong, my son’s home town! But here’s the problem: how to stop the new pavements being used for parking the electric scooters now being subsidised by the Taiwan government.
Christmas itself we celebrated in western style of course: grub, gifts and games for all, plus excessive alcohol consumption for the adults so that they can behave like kids. New Year celebrations are also a western tradition since the Chinese New Year is celebrated in February or thereabouts. However, our son’s wife is not Chinese. She is from one of the aboriginal tribal groups of Taiwan, the biggest one in fact - the Atayal – and they do celebrate our new year hence off we went to the mountain village of her parents. Up there we both have aboriginal names: I am ‘Shee Lan’ which means head hunter and describes a major activity of the tribe in quite recent times, whereas Margaret is ‘Be Sweet’ which means peaceful, which they are not.
In the evening we were taken to Wufong, a nearby village, where there was to be an aboriginal celebration. It was a big do held on the running track of the local school and we were told that no alcohol was to be taken in or consumed. Knowing the beer and rice wine-fuelled aborigines that I had met at previous celebrations, I was both surprised and sceptical about this. And my suspicions were proved valid as it soon became clear that certain of the many food stalls were at first selling beer discreetly and, later again, quite openly. We established a base camp with the family where stools were soon heaped with take-away food above and beer hidden below. Meanwhile the locals fingered the raffle tickets which were included with the entry cost (i.e. free i.e. paid for by the government).
We looked impatiently at the large central stage framed by two big screens, with their waiting cameramen in position plus hovering drone. Many relatives came by to drink with us, then slipped away again. The local mayor offered us VIP seats at the front which we graciously (I hope) declined. Then, at last, the event began with a solo performance of very loud singing followed by the beginning of the main act – the draw. Number after number was drawn and screeched out across the loud PA, and from then on these draws were interspersed with entertainment from local dance troupes, solo and group musicians. Meanwhile I became colder and more sober as I knocked back the seemingly alcohol free (actually 5%) cold Taiwan beer. Finally I could stand it no longer and went out into the village in search of something warming. I found an open store but it seemed only to have the same cold beer. With sign language I tried to explain my requirements to the store owner who, at the end of my performance, said one word “whisky” and led me to the right shelf section. And there I found two dusty bottles of rum – and some coke to go with it! Back at the celebration my find was greeted with great interest by the family and others and through it I somehow found myself drinking with the local chief of police at his special table behind one of the food stalls. A ball of a man with a football face and piggy eyes he was very funny through his limited English supplemented by my son’s translation. The rum had a very good effect all round, even my hands warmed up and I began to enjoy the friendliness of everyone around us.
Soon it was midnight and time for fireworks. Having been lucky enough to avoid a cling-on all evening we did attract one the end. A pretty young woman, entranced by our westerness, first insisted on high proximity photos with me, then transferred her adoration to my wife - holding her hand tightly until finally detached and taken home by her male friend!
Early next morning a pig was killed and dismembered to celebrate the New Year. More Taiwan beer was consumed and a circle of tribal elders assembled to drink rocket fuel (rice wine) and discuss ways of discouraging marriage between relatives within the tribe and to persuade more women and youngsters to attend the tribal parties. It was good to watch but, of course, carried out in their own unique language. After a big lunch washed down with more beer and rocket fuel a ‘spirited debate’ began about the quality and cost of the party. We were quickly whisked away from this to a local shop where we drank beer and sang karaoke for the rest of the afternoon.
Tropical Christmas: unforgettable.