MUSLIM-FRIENDLY TAIPEI

Written by root. Posted in FEATURES

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Published on July 01, 2015 with No Comments

Why this city should be on your travel list.

Words ANIS RAMLI
Images TAIWAN TOURISM BUREAU

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Neatly stacked firewood, piled high, created a stunning partition between the entrance and the open kitchen. There were others freshly chopped, too; the axe still lying on the ground amid a pile of solid logs. Beyond this was a rustic but clean dining area. Behind this on an elevated fenced yard, black-feathered chickens roam free. The smell of woodfire from the kiln brought our gaze back to the kitchen.

We were at the bottom of Yangmingshan National Park. The woodfire-roasted chicken is the specialty of this non-descript eatery, bordered by a clear bubbling river on one side and verdant trees on the other. And it is halal.

On our own, we would not have found this place. But our guide, Ishag Ma, fulltime tour guide and part time Imam at the Taipei Grand Mosque, knows just about every other place in Taipei that is Muslim-friendly. “Eat, eat,” he gestured to us. Not that we needed much encouragement. The chicken was succulent and juicy, its flavours enhanced only by salt and pepper. It was accompanied by rice, fresh vegetables and another chicken dish – this time fried with basil, chilli and soy sauce. “We just slaughtered the chicken a few hours ago – before you came,” offered the Indonesian kitchen helper shyly. “We won’t slaughter if we’re not cooking. They taste fresher that way.”

It’s difficult to come to Taiwan, known as the streetfood capital of the world, and not talk about its food. Thankfully, the country has become increasingly easier to navigate of late for Muslim travellers. Ma, who works at Pro-Tour Express Inc, is an old hand at hosting Muslim travellers to Taiwan. “(Halal) food has always been an issue before but not anymore,” he says. With 180,000 Muslim tourists arriving Taiwan last year, there is greater push by the Government to have more halal-certified restaurants in major tourist attractions. In Taiwan’s capital, these have included the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101.

However, food is not the only thing that has made Taipei a friendly Muslim city. The city ranked fifth in Personal Safety in the recently published Safe Cities Index 2015. Its streets are considered one of the world’s safest since the first city surveillance project in Taiwan began in 2009. Today, Taipei’s 14,000 surveillance cameras installed at 11,500 key points throughout the city help monitor public safety and reduce crime significantly. “It’s true,” says Faika Ahsan, a student at Taiwan’s prestigious National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (NTUST). “Women in hijab can feel safe on the streets. No one would bother you.”

So that night, too tired to sleep, we decided to look for Taipei’s famous after-midnight jaunt. Not a club, but something even better. Halal entertainment that comes in the form of a 24-hour bookstore. Before you scoff at the thought of an insipid shop with uninspired rows of book racks, know that Eslite Bookstore Xinyi is a towering eight-storey building with a built-up area of 8,000sqm. Styled more like a shopping mall, it houses shops that sell bags, jewellery, kitchenware, writing instruments, food, and of course, books. There is also a children’s museum and an exhibition and culture hall.

Even in the wee hours of the morning, the books section was as busy as a Middle Eastern medina. Two basketball players (their jersey jackets were a dead giveaway) laid stretched out on the floor. On a raised platform, a pack of college kids whispered surreptitiously, while at a corner table sits a strikingly pretty female. We think she’s a model. But they all have one thing in common: the love of books. And the titles here are extensive. More than 1 million books and 300,000 titles! Everyone’s welcome to browse, or use the lounges to catch their forty winks. Just be careful to keep your coffee at arm’s length from the books to avoid unnecessary accidents.

The next day, Ma suggested we drive to Jiufen and Yehliu. Both are covered extensively in any Taipei tourist literature. Jiufen, the much-publicised inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, is a vertical, cobblestoned city with snaking shops built close to each other in a mountainous village once known for its gold mines. The trouble with a tourist spot like this is that it can feel like a tourist trap, particularly when met with unscrupulous traders. Overcrowded and overpriced souvenir shops looked set to mar our visit, until we found a mom-and-pops cafe to stop for hot chocolate. It could easily be mistaken for someone’s home – with an antique typewriter, mismatched chairs and Pops lounging alongside customers watching daytime soap on his vintage TV. The service was cheery, though we could not understand Mandarin; the crisp mountain air a welcome break form the stuffy lanes; and the view through the open windows was breathtaking.

Forty minutes away is Yehliu Geological Park, famous for its rock landscapes formed through centuries of erosions. Brochures showed unique rock images – some resembled a female’s head, another, a pair of ballet slippers. Like any other tourist attractions, the long queue for tickets was expected as were the dozens of tourist buses. We were more interested with the fishing port, its locals and the many seafood restaurants along the main road. It was unfortunate that none of the restaurants were Muslim-friendly, but we did get to feast our eyes on some interesting catch form the sea, including eels and the famous Wanli Crab (Taiwan’s best sea crab). Seeing that Taipei is just an hour’s drive back away, it wasn’t hard to make the decision to return to the city to have a proper halal meal. This time it’s the Chinese Halal Beef Noodle restaurant at Da’an. Again, we thanked Ma for his insider knowledge.

Muslims are thought to first arrive in Taiwan, formerly known as Formosa, in 1661 after the fall of the Ming Dynasty. However, the majority of Taiwanese Muslims found today are believed to be descendants of the Kuomintang (KMT) Chinese Nationalist Party that settled in Taiwan after Chiang Kai-Shek’s defeat by Communist China. In 1960, Taipei got its first mosque, the Taipei Grand Mosque, built with local funding and aid from the Shah of Iran and the King of Jordan. Another, the Taipei Culture Mosque, while founded in 1950, had its humble beginnings in a Japanese-style home that was used as a prayer hall. A new building and extensive renovations in 1982 saw the Taipei Culture Mosque built as a new 5-storey building as it stands today. Conservative estimates put Taiwan as having about 50,000 Taiwanese Muslims and 230,000 Muslim Indonesian workers.

Hadziq Fabroyir, President of NTUST’s International Muslim Students Association says, “When Taiwan’s mainstream media started highlighting Muslims and Islamic issues, there has been greater awareness of Muslims in this country.” Previously, all that is known of Muslims among the locals is that “Muslims do not eat pork and men can have many wives,” Fabroyir says laughing.

Today, in its approach to make Taiwan a Muslim-friendly country, the government has helped provide a Muslim prayer room at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (there are also rooms for other faiths) and more recently in February 2015, the Taipei Main Station followed suit with a Muslim prayer room on its basement floor, making it the only transportation facility in Taiwan to offer such service. “But Alhamdulillah,” Fabroyir continued, “there is no issue for the Muslim to pray at any public spaces in Taipei – whether at the stairwell of a mall or a quiet corner in the subway station. Prayer facilities may be far and wide, but there is great tolerance for people of other faiths here in Taipei and no one will bother you if you pray openly.”

There is much to love about Taipei than it just being Muslim friendly. Taxis are affordable and drivers generally honest, even if they have a poor command of English. Nature is closer to Taipei than you think, with incredible escapes that can be done in an hour or a day’s trip. There are the calla lilies farms in Zhuzihu, hotpsrings in Beitou and strawberry picking in the hills of Neihu. Certainly with so many things to discover, Taipei needs a return visit to be fully appreciated.

 

 

Royal Brunei Airlines flies Hong Kong daily for connection to Taipei.

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