Monday, April 4, 2011

A view from Taipei of Japan and man's resilience

(To the left you see a photograph of Taipei 101, taken by my wife, Suzanne Centenio Atkins)

TAIPEI – I’m sitting in my room on the 17th floor of my hotel, looking out the window at the world’s second tallest building, the Taipei 101. Behind me, the BBC news continues to report on the unfolding catastrophe in Japan—earthquake, tsunami, nuclear plant explosions, thousands dead or missing.

A former journalism student at Ole Miss (and my very able graduate assistant), Takehiko Kambayashi, now a correspondent for the German Press Agency (DPA) living in Saitama, just north of Tokyo, sent an e-mail that he “thought the roof would collapse” after the initial 8.9 earthquake that hit northeast Japan.

“Many aftershocks while I kept filing,” he reported. “I will keep filing. … The quake-stricken area was a lovely part of Japan. We’ve been there many times and, in fact, my family was planning to visit there in May.”

Here in Taiwan, 1,400 miles to the south, President Ma Ying-jeou placed the entire island on tsunami alert. However, by the time the tsunami reached Taiwan it was only a half a meter high. The Taiwanese take no chances. This is a country prone to earthquakes and typhoons. An earthquake in 1999 killed 3,000 people here. In 1963, a typhoon named Gloria flooded the city of Taipei for three days.

Taipei today is a city of roughly 3 million people.

When the tsunami hit Japan, I could hardly tear my eyes from the television.

This was a disaster of biblical proportions--whole towns washed away, multi-story buildings collapsed like stick houses, sea-hardy boats capsized as easily as a child’s toy in a bathtub, and then all the people caught in an unfathomable maelstrom. I was in my hometown of Oxford, Miss., roughly 300 miles north of the Gulf Coast, when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and I remember winds still fierce enough to take down nearby trees. I feel a similar helplessness and anguish for the distant suffering that I know is taking place.

The earthquake hit on the day of my arrival here, and it has been the topic of everyone’s conversation ever since. Taiwan was once part of Japan. The Chinese ceded it after losing a war to its eastern neighbor in 1895. Once known as Formosa, Taiwan stayed under Japanese control until 1945. Four years later, it became the refuge for Chiang Kai-Shek’s army fleeing the Communist takeover of the mainland and was declared the national Republic of China.

The early years of rule by the Generalissimo and his Kuomintang party were so utterly corrupt that a London Daily News reporter claimed that “the Formosans are probably the only Orientals who wouldn’t be sorry to see the Japanese back.”

(At the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall)

Yet the culture here has always remained resolutely Taiwanese and Chinese, seen everywhere in the flourishing night markets, the world-famous cuisine, the performances of traditional opera, dance and music, and in the Buddhist and Tao shrines and temples across the land.

(One of Taipei's thriving markets)

“Taiwan represents an unbroken line of five thousand years of Chinese culture,” says Martin Kriegel, a New York-bred attorney and now expatriate who has been living in Taiwan for a year. “In Mainland China during the Cultural Revolution many aspects of traditional Chinese culture were suppressed, or were attempted to be eradicated entirely. Today both the Taiwanese and Chinese cultures seem alive and flourishing.”

Back in my room, night has fallen, and I’m still staring at the Taipei 101 building, 101 floors, 1,667 feet, rising high above the rest of Taipei, dwarfing everything around it, a monument to a land once seen as a bulwark against world communism, a place where American presidents raised toasts with the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang to communism’s eventual defeat. Today the United States recognizes mainland China as the true and legitimate China.

Taipei 101, completed in 2004, was built to “let the international community see Taiwan’s limitless potential,” a placard inside the building proclaims. Six years later, Dubai built the Burj Khalifa, 162 stories and 2,717 feet high, another testament to those dreams, hopes, ambitions of man that are so vulnerable to the destructive whims of nature and politics but are also so ever resilient. That human resilience will be seen in northern Japan, as it was in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, when the tears have abated, and man inevitably returns to rebuild.

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