Cushla Norman: "I’ve spent time in Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong and to me Taipei felt like a blend of all three."
A squad of Taipei's twinkle-toed retirees are dancing under the trees at an inner-city park when I rock up with a thrilling conversation starter: cross-strait relations. China’s political posturing is probably the last thing they want to talk about mid-Taiwanese tango, but they indulge my curiosity.
Some of them have been living with the threat of conflict with China all their lives, but this year the tension rose a notch. One woman tells me she's worried and some of her friends have already moved to New Zealand of all places. Will she join them I ask? No, it’s too expensive she said, perhaps in the know of our cost-of-living crisis.
The world has been talking about Taiwan a lot this year, as Beijing ratchets up pressure on the island. The US claims China is speeding up its unification plans, but people here continue to go about their lives. Peng Shenyu is a regular in the Friday morning dance crew. He said the threat of China is always at the back of people’s minds but it’s not something they talk about on a daily basis.
Cushla Norman interviewing Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year has heightened senses. Taiwan's government is bolstering defences and citizens are thinking about what they can do to prepare. Bootcamps and workshops to learn combat and first aid skills are becoming popular.
We observe a course on a Saturday afternoon where about 100 people are learning how to pack deep trauma wounds on plastic dummies. There’s a sense of community and the collective. They tell me they want to be helpful citizens if Taiwan ever must face a much larger enemy.
Polls show young people are especially willing to fight for Taiwan. Those born after 1996, the year Taiwan became a democracy, are particularly passionate about their identity. Like Diana, who loves her green passport with the words “Taiwan” emblazoned in gold on the cover. “I come from Taiwan, it's a country, it's not China, yes I love my country,” she excitedly tells me.
Young people in Taipei learning how to pack trauma wounds on plastic dummies
There’s a strong sense of pride among people here, especially when it comes to their hard-won democratic rights.
The island has been through a lot of change in the past several hundred years. It’s been ruled by the Dutch, the Qing dynasty and the Japanese. Then there was the nearly 40 year military dictatorship under the Chinese nationalists, who fled to the island in 1949.
Taiwan's democracy is still young, but more than ever it's come to define this island. I notice the heavy emphasis the Foreign Minister puts on democratic rights. Taiwan might have few diplomatic allies, but that doesn't stop it appealing to countries with shared values.
“New Zealand shares much in common with Taiwan - protection of democratic and human rights, freedom of speech and the press. Yet our relationship with it is defined by our ties with China - our biggest trading partner, which has a very different set of values.”
Whomever we meet on our travels, the one question I always ask them is what do they want for the future of Taiwan: unification with China, the status quo or independence? Their answer is, overwhelmingly in favour of the status quo.
People here are very pragmatic; they realise declaring independence would trigger a Chinese invasion. The status quo means Taiwan is diplomatically isolated, but it still has its own government, passport, flag, currency and army.
Cushla interviewing Zespri’s Joanne Chen at a fruit market in Taipei
I’ve spent time in Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong and to me Taipei felt like a blend of all three. It's got packs of scooter riders like Shanghai, the hip backstreets of Tokyo and pockets of lush greenery and hills like Hong Kong.
The influence from Japan’s 50-year rule in the early 20th century is still clear today - from the katakana engravings outside old shops to the importation of fancy Japanese department store brands.
A lot of elderly people still speak Japanese and I find myself brushing off years of trying to learn Nihongo while regretting not having picked up Mandarin.
A memorable part of the trip was speaking with one of the Hong Kong booksellers who was detained in 2015.
Lam Wing-kee now calls Taipei home and he's recreated his old bookshop here full of titles forbidden in China. He's seen the demise of rights and freedoms in his homeland and warns Taiwan against the "one country two systems" arrangement imposed in Hong Kong. But there's a key difference that gives him hope - Taiwan has a military. “You can always fight,” he said.
Read Cushla Norman's Taiwan stories
This piece was first published on the Asia New Zealand Foundation website.