travel

Strait from the heart: Why Taiwan may be Asia's most gay-friendly country

Taiwan made headlines for the wrong reasons recently: voters came out against same-sex marriage in a referendum. But it might still be the the most queer-friendly country in Asia

2019-02-26

Arguably the most diverse continent on the planet, Asia is rich with culture and steeped in a history that spans back to the earliest days of human civilisation. Although China, Japan, Thailand, Korea and other neighbouring nations often hog the tourism spotlight, Taiwan has been quietly making bold strides forwards in LGBT+ equality. Last year, it raced ahead of its neighbours by recognising the rights of its queer community after a constitutional court told the nation’s legislators to ensure that marriage equality was in place by May 2019 regardless of the recent referendum result.

Located to the east of China, the island is separated from the mainland by the 112-mile-wide Taiwan Strait. Although China controversially claims ownership of the island, it operates autonomously and boasts the 22nd largest economy in the world.

Given its recent embrace of same-sex marriage equality in a region in which perspectives on LGBT+ identity are only just beginning to evolve, it’s definitely deserving of Attitude’s attention. As such we jumped at the chance to explore further when Taiwanese airline EVA Air invited us there.

After arriving in the capital, Taipei, our first stop is the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall to get a better understanding of the country’s fascinating politics. Standing on tip-toes to look over the heads of a large crowd, we watch six chrome-helmeted soldiers perform the changing of the guard in front of an enormous statue of the Republic of China’s former president, before we head into the building’s museum.

On guard: Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

In short, Taiwan — formally known as Formosa — was annexed by China in the 17th century, ceded to Japan in 1895, which was then forced to renounce all claims to the island after its defeat at the end of the Second World War.

Around this time the Chinese Civil War broke out between the Communist Party of China and the Chinese Nationalists led by the Republic of China’s leader, Kai-shek. After losing the battle, he and two million Nationalists left mainland China and made the northern city of Taipei the new Republic of China’s capital, effectively making Taiwan a dictatorship for almost 40 years.

The island’s convoluted history essentially paved the way for the modern same-sex marriage battle in Taiwan. The lifting of martial law in 1987 by Kai-shek’s son opened the country up to new rights for previously marginalised groups such as the workers, women, ethnic groups and the LGBT+ community.

Begin to see the light: Taipei

The move to democracy and the freedom of the press created a rift with the one-party state of China that believes Taiwan is part of its territory.

The Taiwanese government has granted the LGBT+ community many rights, such as protections against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identification in education and employment — thus improving the country’s image on the international stage and effectively giving China the two-finger salute.

Enlightened by the country’s progressive policies, we move on to Longshan Temple and the magnificent waterfall at its entrance, which serves Buddhists, Taoists and Confucianists with more than 100 deities.

Longshan Temple

There is a hollow clanking of wood as a group of women throw jiaobei, or moon blocks, on to the floor in front of the statue of the Chinese god of love and marriage, Yue Lao, whose name translates as “the old man under the moon”.

If the blocks land with the painted side up three times, they get a red thread to wear on their wrist, which helps the matchmaker deity find them true love and marriage. Looking at my ring-less fingers, I decide to have a go. I’m not seeing any red paint when my blocks land, so I guess my boyfriend can spend some more time saving for the engagement ring rather than getting ready to bend down on one knee just yet.

We spend the next few hours exploring some of the city’s best shopping districts, starting with Dihua Street. Lined with a mix of traditional Chinese medicine and food shops selling everything from fish roe to bird’s nests, in recent years the street has been gentrified with the arrival of contemporary design shops. Next, we stop at Yongkang Street where we queue behind 30 people for traditional scallion pancakes — sometimes it’s best to follow the crowd. After our savoury onion pancakes, we weave in and out of the colourful gift shops, tea shops, hipster cafes and craft-beer bars.

We finish our odyssey in Ximending neighbourhood, where high-street and independent clothing shops are jumbled up with arcade halls filled with mazes of bright-pink claw machines and Taiwanese bubble tea shops.

Chinese checker: Markus visits Taipei's Ximending district

The area is home to Taipei’s biggest gay district, which sits around the century-old eight-sided Red House. There are two levels of gay bars and shops that all look out onto a courtyard filled with chairs and tables for al fresco drinking.

Since planning my journey, the anti-gay religious right of Taiwan had mounted their holier-than-thou high horses and demanded a referendum on marriage equality. The organisation got its wish, campaigned and won with 72 per cent of the votes, an infuriating result since Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice conducted a poll of 200,000 citizens in 2015 and found that 71 per cent of Taiwanese people supported same-sex marriage.

Thankfully, the government says that the referendum result does not affect the country’s road to marriage equality, although many fear this will simply mean a new law created for the queer community, giving them, in eff ect, second-class marriage status. (Something similar to the compromise the UK lesbian and gay community made with civil partnerships before finally winning the right to full marriage equality in 2014.)

Fred, editor of the LGBT+ website GagaTai, and Fufu, a dance choreographer and YouTube personality, share my frustrations.

“I was angry and disappointed by the referendum. Why have a referendum on human rights?” says Fufu.

“I made a couple of YouTube campaign videos and I am happy that three million people, including my family, voted to support gay marriage. I think the problem is the older generation who vote in higher numbers and don’t understand marriage equality.

“The referendum is not the end, we will fight until we have complete sexual and gender equality in Taiwan,” he adds defiantly

Fred is equally disappointed. “I was shocked by the result [of the referendum] because I am surrounded by a gay-friendly environment and didn’t know anyone against it,” he says. “The anti-gay groups have become so powerful, using their tricks on people that we may have a separate law created for gay marriage.”

Despite the recent referendum Fred believes Taiwan remains one of Asia’s most gay-friendly destinations. “Taiwan Pride is the biggest in Asia. It’s a great symbol and off ers a warm hug to the whole LGBT+ community.”

Selling point: Shilin night market in Taipei

After a couple of beers with the boys, I rejoin my group at the Shilin Night Market. Taipei has many of this type of market and they are a real jolt to the senses with numerous food vendors cooking all manner of delights, the sound of kids playing carnival games, and the odd feeling that I have become part of a herd as the alleyways of the market fi ll with people. After stuff ing myself to the gills with cobs of spicy corn, charred sesame buns and bowls of fried herby mushrooms, we head back to our hotel to switch off from a busy day

The next morning we are up early to catch a bullet train to Tainan, the former capital, on the south-western coast of the island. Our fi rst stop is Du Xiao Yue, a century-old noodle restaurant. As we walk in we’re greeted by a man sitting on a stool surrounded by pots on hot burners preparing the famous dan zai noodles, topped with minced meat, dried shrimp and black vinegar. We eat with enthusiasm as our hosts order what appears to be everything on the menu.

Appetites sated, we walk down the street to Hayashi. Opened in 1932, the six-storey department store was only the second in Taiwan with a lift, which I skip, thinking I could use the exercise after my lunch.

Din Tai Fung dumpling restaurant

On each street corner in Tainan is a small shrine. The city is the country’s spiritual capital, its streets filled with hundreds of temples. Many honour specific gods or great warriors, with a small one dedicated to a warrior’s horse.

The temples are all very welcoming and my favourite activity is searching out each temple’s General Tiger, a deity in the form of a tiger, often with big eyes, buck teeth and intended for children.

After a long walking tour, I take a break and sit watching the koi fish splash about in one of the ponds at Chihkan Tower. The building and park were erected on the remains of 17th-century Fort Provintia, built by the Dutch when they tried but failed to occupy the island.

Fishing expedition: Koi at Chihkan Tower

Tainan does not have much of a gay bar scene, but I still have a great night out sampling cocktails at the popular Checkered Record Club, followed by drinks at the suitably named The Dive Bar, before fi nishing across the street at another bar, by this point the Taiwanese name of which I couldn’t pronounce or spell.

We sit at a table on the pavement in the warm midnight air and bravely order meaty dishes from the menu sans English - I have to admit chicken hearts are pretty tasty.

Waking up slightly worse for wear the next morning, I jump on our coach and we are driven towards Alishan, an inland range of mountains. We zigzag up mountain roads, stopping halfway up at Fanlu, a small township made from corrugated metal. We are here to visit the Highlight Tea estate - one of the many plantations - and sample a dozen teas before taking a stroll through the perfect rows of tea plants, each immaculately trimmed.

 

Take a leaf out of their book: The Highlight Tea Estate

Further along the road, the bus drops us off at Zhuqi township, where we watch the kids playing on rail tracks as their parents look on from the platform. We assume it isn’t a busy station, and there is no electrifi ed third rail to give the wayward little ones unexpected shocks. My curiosity is piqued by a pretty white trumpet-like fl ower hanging from a tree, but as I reach to touch it I’m yelled at by our guide. It transpires it’s Angels’ Tears, a poisonous fl ower. I guess the local children know to steer clear.

We sit down to a lunch of bento boxes ordered from a restaurant shaped like a train, then walk around the town’s market stalls that sell cookies, fragrant cooked ginger and wasabi peas.

Making it back in time to watch the sunset from the hotel’s viewing platform, the sun looks like a golden cannonball with a plume of red smoke billowing from beneath it. With the afterglow fading and the chill setting in, we push off to bed in anticipation of a 4am wake-up call for the sunrise over Mount Jade.

Alishan

In the morning, we join a massive queue at the train station to board the Forest Railway, which has been in operation for more than a century. It is packed, and pitch black outside the windows.

Getting off the train we walk up a paved road to find our spot on a viewing platform and watch the sky fade from a dark, inky blue to a warm amber until shards of light shoot across the mountain. With the landscape fully lit, we can see the sea of clouds that fill the valley between the mountains.

We ride the train back down where most of the group rush off for breakfast but I take my time hiking through the forest. Signs reveal the age of the oldest trees and there is a 20m-tall stone pagoda dedicated to the tree spirits.

Alishan Wonderland: Take a tour through beautiful forests

The area is most famous for its sunrises, but the Japanese occupation left the area with Japan’s famous cherry blossom trees, which bloom in March and April.

Walking the timber walkways and stone stairs, the smell of cedar and the sound of distant waterfalls hang in the air. I could spend a whole day walking the trails, but we must move on and head back to the capital.

On our return we stay in the Beitou district, which is reminiscent of Japan. There is a massive hot spring lake from which a river runs in which people used to dip their feet into, something that has recently been banned in order to protect the area. There are both clothed public bathing and Japanese-style nude hot spring baths to enjoy.

We carry on to the National Palace Museum, which is filled with treasures that Kai-shek and his nationalists smuggled out when they made their flight from China. The most famous of these treasures include the jade cabbage, a small carving that is so beloved that I see people bring out binoculars to get a better view of its finer details. In truth, I find the rooms filled with painting and calligraphy far more enthralling.

Taipei 101

Our day ends at Taipei 101, a building that looks like eight Chinese takeaway boxes stacked on top of each other, but is actually modelled on bamboo, and there are no prizes for guessing how many floors it has.

On the 91st floor there’s an observation deck and near ground level are several floors of shops and restaurants. We bypass the crowd queueing to get into the Din Tai Fung dumpling restaurant in the basement. It’s won numerous awards and the BBC has been to the restaurant twice to film the impressive kitchen staff who we watch make up to 12 dumplings per minute. We are told they can make 12,000 over the course of a day.

When we sit down to try sample the goods, the food writer sitting next to me exclaims it’s one of his top foodie experiences ever. I have a similar reaction when they present us with the gooey chocolate dessert dumplings.

Leaving Taipei 101, evening has set in and the building is lit in a purple hue. Each night of the week the building is lit in one of seven colours of the rainbow, and I decide this is to honour the LGBT+ community.

Sure, the referendum result on marriage equality was disappointing and possibly down to conservative older generations. But this is not reflective of my experience in Taiwan, nor of the vibrant young men and women I meet on my journey here, nor the government and lawmakers who still plan to legalise same-sex marriage.

All being well, come May, Taiwan will be the most gay-friendly nation in Asia - with legislation to prove it.

EVA Air flies to Taipei via Bangkok from Heathrow daily. Economy return from £527 evaair.com eng.taiwan.net.tw

Where to Stay

Cozzie Zhongxiao Taipei

This modern hotel chain offers affordable luxury, state-of-the-art tech in the rooms and suites and a convenient central location within walking distance from Taipei Main station.

hotelcozzi.com

Silks Place Tainan

This classy contemporary hotel has an enticing fourth-floor outdoor heated pool and one of the best traditional breakfast spreads you are likely to find in Tainan.

tainan.silksplace.com

The Gaia Hotel

Located in the Beitou district of Taipei, this design hotel is filled with quirky architectural features and art. But the real draw is the Japanese-style hot springs that will soothe your aching muscles after a day of sightseeing.

thegaiahotel.com

Alishan House

If you visit Alishan, this is where you want to stay. It has the perfect location with the hiking trails starting right outside the entrance and a roof-top observation deck to watch the stunning sunrises and sunsets.

alishanhouse.hotel.com.tw