Walk in Taiwan

Showcasing a Culturally Self-Confident Nation

2020 / May

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Phil Newell

How do you pronounce the word for “tea” in your culture? Is it more like “cha,” or more like “tea”? James Shih, a guide for “Walk in Taiwan,” likes to use this question as an entry point when explain­ing to foreign visitors how tea culture spread from China to other lands around the world. If the pronunciation is “cha” in a given country—as it is in Mandarin Chinese—this means that tea was transmitted there by an overland route (the Silk Road); whereas if it is “tea,” this indicates passage by sea, because Dutch and British merchants who transported tea to Europe from Fujian and Taiwan were influenced by the Minnan pronunciation, “tê.”

Using “tea” to broach a topic that links Taiwan and foreigners shows that however different we may be, perhaps we can find some common ground in the fragments left behind by history.

“Walk in Taiwan” is a cultural guided tour brand that originated in the Dadaocheng neighborhood of Taipei. Founder Chiu Yi, whose family has lived in Dadaocheng for five generations, has adopted the walking tour format to guide people in exploring the stories of the city, with each tour being a journey of self-discovery.

Uncovering local stories

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the world, many countries have seen no choice but to close their borders. Walk in Taiwan, meanwhile, tells us, “If we can’t go abroad, then we can travel here at home!” If you can’t broaden your horizons by traveling overseas, then why not engage in some “self-discovery” in Taiwan?

In fact, Walk in Taiwan has been doing “travel here at home” for many years now. They launched their first guided tour of Dadaocheng back in 2012, and since then they have been leading people deep into streets and small lanes, telling of the glory days of Taiwan tea, showing visitors city blocks where renovated old buildings are full of creative shops, or taking them to feast at the many small eateries around Cisheng Temple. In Dadaocheng, with its rich cultural foundations, new innovations are spliced onto old traditions, and you could visit countless times without getting tired of it.

Going at an unhurried but steady pace, Walk in Taiwan has developed more than 400 cultural tours and mini-trips. They have held tours at 3:30 a.m. to visit the early morning wholesale market, where tourists could witness the subtle gestures by which bids are made and acknowledged. They have followed the procession of the deities from Bangka Qingshan Temple. Each Octo­ber, they hold LGBTQ-themed tours in coordination with the Taiwan Pride parade. And they co­operate with the “Brilliant Time” Southeast-Asia-themed bookstore to visit locations where migrant workers gather in their leisure time. Behind these activities there lies the concern for social issues felt by the people at Walk in Taiwan, issues that include preservation of cultural heritage, revital­ization of old buildings, gay rights, and cultural equality. Working on the principle that understanding is the first step in mutual exchange, they hope that through more knowledge and understanding they can stimulate discussion in society.

In recent years, Walk in Taiwan has expanded to other places including Keelung, Yilan, Hsinchu, and Chiayi, where they work with resident local historians, cultural workers and businesses, using guided tours to help local people discover their own cultural assets, and applying the concept of sustainable tourism to ensure a beneficial relation­ship between the travel industry and localities.

“The majority of Walk in Taiwan’s customers are younger adults, and what motivates them is a desire to find out who they are,” explains Suni Yen, the company’s chief marketing executive. This led to the realization that they should devote more effort to educating children, guiding kids to get to know the city where they live, and, through the influence of children on their parents, helping more people recognize that Taiwan is an island with its own stories to tell.

In fact, there has never been any shortage of stories in our cities, but in the course of our studies and our working lives we lack opportunities to really get to know our own neighborhoods. James Shih, who went on numerous Walk in Taiwan tours before training as a guide himself, recalls: “When the first tour I ever joined in Dadaocheng was over, my first thought was that I wanted to come back, because I wanted to learn more, and I wanted to bring my friends back with me to Da­dao­cheng and tell them the stories I had heard.”

Custom tours to find common ground

Walk in Taiwan not only guides local citizens on tours of self-discovery, they also introduce Taiwan to foreigners.

James Shih, who often hosts foreign guests for government agencies such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, is skilled at using small details to grab the attention of visitors, aiming to find cultural common ground between Taiwan and the visitor’s home country. For example, he made a special point of finding out about Poland’s public bicycle network so that he could share information about Taiwan’s system with Polish visitors as they walked past a YouBike station. When talking about the preservation of old buildings on Dihua Street, Shih will mention New York City as the first city in the world to use “transferable development rights” for the preservation of historic sites, and then explain how the government of Taiwan has borrowed this concept and has adopted the “Urban Regeneration Station” policy. This creates an opportunity to link together the urban conservation experience of the two cities.

Tailoring tours to the background of the target audience is something that Walk in Taiwan devotes a lot of effort to. James Shih recalls a lesson in his guide training course on how to customize one’s offering to clients. His assignment was to introduce Taiwan’s breakfast ­sandwich bars to Lin Yutang (1895‡1976), the famous writer and philo­sopher. This is a concept devised by Suni Yen, based on design thinking, to train seed teachers in how to empathize with visitors. Through such under­standing, guides can figure out how to use common threads to build a bridge for dialogue across the distance that separates strangers at their first meeting.

Whenever James Shih is assigned to guide a foreign visitor, he will first go online to find out the visitor’s background, nationality, and place of birth, as well as the schools they attended and their major field of study. Once he hosted a scientist from South Africa, a specialist on youth smoking issues, whose entire education had been in Catholic schools. Shih took her to the Taipei Xia-Hai City God Temple and showed her statues of two martial guardians of the City God (Cheng Huang Ye), who represent the virtues of faithfulness and righteousness. After hearing what Shih had to say, this scholar responded that Western churches also have sculptures and paintings to convey positive values to illiterate believers. With the visitor drawing the connection herself, Shih learned something new.

Suni Yen says that each time they get a commission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they know that these guests will have only accepted an invitation to come to Taiwan after a great deal of effort by MOFA staff, and that the job of Walk in Taiwan is to do everything they can to find a connection between the cultures of the two sides through a one or two hour tour, so that the visitors will leave with strong memories of Taiwan. “This is because foreign visitors will only be willing to return to Taiwan, or to speak out for Taiwan in their respective fields, if there is some cultural connection there. If they can feel that link between Taiwan and their own culture, and a sense of emotional attachment, then Walk in Taiwan has done its job.”

A culturally self-confident Taiwan

Walk in Taiwan is continually coming up with ideas to revolutionize guided tour formats. Take for example the “Dadaocheng Museum” program, which is not located in a specific building, but applies the “open house” idea to open up venues that do not usually welcome tourists, and enables their owners to speak for themselves. They have arranged for proprietors of traditional Chinese pharmacies and other old shops to tell their own stories, giving local people their own voice and enabling visitors to experience the most vibrant aspects of the owners’ lives. During the planning for the first year’s program, Walk in Taiwan staff had to go door to door to appeal to shop owners for their cooperation, and they only succeeded after founder Chiu Yi personally joined in the effort. However, as the time for the second year’s program approached, it was the shop owners who took the initi­ative to tell Walk in Taiwan how happy they had been with the activities the previous year and to ask whether the event would be held again.

“You have to first be noticed and appreciated, to find the motivation to put yourself out there on public display.” Suni Yen says that people in the community have taken the opportunity to observe and learn from each other. When children growing up in century-old shops see how confidently people of the older genera­tions greet tour groups and recount their family his­tories, perhaps this scene will engender a sense of family pride in the younger generation. “Giving people who join our tours a look at a culturally self-confident Taiwan has been the most fundamental aim of Walk in Taiwan since its founding,” says Yen.

The more you know, the more you will discover that Taiwanese culture is not uniform. For example, in Da­dao­cheng you can see side by side buildings from the Qing Dynasty, the era of Japanese rule, and the post-WWII era, and each building has its own story. “My pride comes from the fact that this place is interesting, not that it is necessarily the best. My pride comes from the fact that I have a story to share with everyone,” says James Shih, his voice tinged with emotion.

Shih goes on to relate the story of a tour he gave to a class from a middle school in Xizhi. After he had finished discussing the history of Dadaocheng, he showed the students an old photograph of a street of beautiful Western-­style houses and shops. The students recognized that the photo was of Xizhi, and Shih nodded his head and explained that Xizhi and Dadaocheng had similar origins. Back in the day, medium-sized boats followed the Keelung River upstream to Xizhi, which was both a tea growing area and a distribution point for tea from the surrounding region, and the town flourished as a result of the tea trade. Shih hoped that after hearing the storytelling approach adopted by Walk in Taiwan, they would go back and look for stories of Xizhi, so they would have tales of their own hometown to tell.

Not only do they introduce foreigners to a culturally self-confident Taiwan, they also allow us Taiwanese to reconnect with a culturally self-confident Taiwan: At Walk in Taiwan, learning about Taiwan and self-­discovery are continually ongoing processes.

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