erik lundegaard

Monday May 15, 2023

Taipei Hui Lai

The Grand Hotel lobby in Taipei: “Mad Men” on steroids. 

As I was packing for our trip to Taiwan, I thought of Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth's alter ego in the Zuckerman trilogy. In the first novel, The Ghost Writer, which takes place when Zuckerman was a budding “short story” writer, he visits his mentor E.I. Lonoff in the goyisher New England woods, loaded down with a typewriter and enough paper to write the Great American Novel should the idea come to him on the train. After his late 1960s success with “Carnovsky” (read: “Portnoy”), and his father's death-bed curse, he travels again, in The Anatomy Lesson, this time loaded down with pills and medications for illnesses and pains that may be psychosomatic but may simply be his body wearing down.

When I first arrived in Taiwan in October 1987, I too was loaded down with writerly stuff, an electric typewriter, in case the Great American Novel should come to me during my year abroad. (Spoiler alert: didn't.) This month I returned to Taiwan for the first time in 32 years, loaded down not with the burden of dreams but the burden of age:

  • two inhalers for asthma (diagnosed age 25)
  • metrogel and erythromicin 2%H20 for rosacae (age 30)
  • omeprazole for acid reflux (age 51)
  • levothyroxin for hypothyroidism (age 52)
  • Xanax (age 53)

(Yes, my early 50s were not good.)

Plus, of course, all the other accoutrements of trying to look OK and not offend the world: razor, shaving cream, lotion, shampoo, hair gel, deodorant. I was shaving the other morning, and thought of the line Brad Pitt says to a shaving (and aged) Robert Redford in “Spy Game”: “Why do you even bother?” 

Plus I brought things I couldn't imagine bringing 35 years ago: COVID tests and masks for that worldwide pandemic that's still hanging around.

Since arriving in Taipei I've thought a lot about an essay I wrote for (I believe) a University of Minnesota publication. I think I'd promised the editor I'd write something about living abroad, and after a few months sent something off, and it was published, and it was full of the gripes of a privileged foreigner living in a strange land for the first time. I think it began “If you're looking for adventure abroad, try crossing the street in Taipei,” or something similar, and it got worse.

What I think about Taiwan now is how nice everyone is. Immediately. 

At the airport information desk, a woman was about to go on break, putting up a sign saying the desk was temporarily closed, and I forget what I said, something cheeky in Mandarin, and the woman laughed and came around and helped, and not only pointed out where to get the MRT train to Taipei but actually walked us there. Then she waited to make sure we'd make it through the turnstiles. At the Taipei train station, Patricia paused to look at her travel papers for where we were staying, and another woman stopped to ask if she needed help. Outside, we couldn't quite fathom the cab system, so a man helped us flag one down. The whole Confucian thing, “When friends come from far away, it is indeed a pleasure,” is still strong here.


When I was young, too, I had very little money. I arrived at the wrong time, October, when teaching gigs at the bigger bushibans had already been handed out, and I scrambled as I looked for places to teach ESL and study Chinese and live. I chose everything wrong. I studied at Guo Yu Ri Bao rather than Shi Da, where most of the foreigners studied; I wound up living way north in Tien Mu rather than in a more central location; and I taught at little bushibans because they were the only ones that would take my late-arriving ass. I remember frequently riding the bus, strap-hanging mostly, back to Tien Mu at night after another few measley hours of teaching, and passing the Grand Hotel, the majestic, bright-red, pagoda-like hotel commissioned by Chiang Kai-shek so he could host world leaders who mostly never arrived. 

And now we were staying there. Our first two nights in Taiwan were at the Grand Hotel.

I'll say this: “grand” doesn't quite cut it. I thought in the intervening years, with Chiang on the outs, it might have become run down, but it's the opposite. Its opulence has opulence. There seemed to be five people waiting on us at every turn, suited up, polite, white-gloved. There's an Olympic-sized, eight-lane outdoor swimming pool we were able to use, and which never didn't have a few lanes, if not most lanes, free. There were tennis courts. The hotel has four restaurants, numerous gimcrack-y shops, a barber shop, and even a little store for stamps. Yes: stamps. There's a “Prestige Lounge,” a “Business Center,” an “International Reception Hall,” and even a “Breastfeeding Room.” In the lobby, at the foot of the grand red-carpeted staircase, a roped-off 1974 BMW E9 was on display. After dinner on the second night, we descended to classical Chinese music, which turned out to be not recorded but live—two women, a violinist and pianist, playing exquisuitely. Our final morning, we ate at their buffet-style breakfast, where there must've been 100 items on offer: from three types of breakfast cereal, to croissants and scones, to different types of fruits, to eggs and pancakes, to all manner of Chinese and Japanese food. Our favorite was the black sesame baozi

And the rooms! Good god, Huge, with polished wood floors, a desk worthy of signing an international treaty on, and a balcony that looked out over the city. Patricia felt the whole thing was like “Mad Men” on steroids. I figured we'd been placed there by error, and it would soon be corrected, and we'd be shown the door like the imposters we were. “Oh sorry, you're not supposed to be in this Grand Hotel, you're supposed to be in that one.”

And it was all so very, very quiet.

Not the lobby. The lobby was forever bustling, often with tour groups, but on our floor, the sixth, we hardly saw anyone. It felt as empty and silent as the hotel in “The Shining.” The last morning, Patricia did manage to see another person on one of the other 15 balconies near ours, but that was our one human contact on the floor we stayed on. And we were hardly paying exorbitant prices. To be honest, I don't know how they make it work. I don't know how they don't go under. 

At the stamp store, I asked the attendant, as politely as possible, if people still collected stamps, and she said, “Oh yes, Chinese people, particularly Mainland Chinese people.” “Oh, so you get a lot of guests from Mainland China?” I asked. “Before,” she said, “very much. But now, very little.” I got the sense that Mainland China had cut back its flights to Taiwan? Not sure if it was a policy initated by COVID and maintained, or by Xi prior to COVID. “So the guests now are mostly Taiwese people?” I asked. She nodded. “Taiwan ren.”

Is it all a little sad? On the veranda level, next to the stamp shop, there's a wall of framed photos of visiting dignitaries and celebrities. The hotel opened in 1952 and Pres. Eisenhower visited in 1960—the first sitting U.S. president to do so. And the last. LBJ visited but in 1961 but as vice president. Bill Clinton visited but as governor of Arkansas. I saw no photos of Nixon (who went to Mainland China) or Carter (who recognized Mainland China). There were shots of visiting celebrities: Elizabeth Taylor, Chow Yun Fat, Gong Li, the cast of “Eat Drink Man Woman.” There's something about it that breaks your heart. They planned an elaborate party but few came. But they're still so polite. You, my friend, who have come from far away, yes, even you, are indeed a pleasure.

Posted at 07:23 PM on Monday May 15, 2023 in category Travels  
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