WHILE HIS MORNING class warms up under the monkey pod trees, Master Hung introduces the art of tai chi. It is no easy task to summarise a practice developed over four centuries into five major styles, involving hundreds of routines. Central to all of them, however, is the earth beneath. ‘When you’re used to taiji quan,’ says Master Hung, giving its formal name, ‘you feel the energy coming from your feet all the way to your fingertips.’ The backdrop is the ancient Confucius Temple in Tainan. It’s a serene spot, but that is unimportant: ‘Whether you feel peaceful depends on you, not your surroundings,’ says Master Hung with a silver-toothed smile. He moves through a routine with apparent ease, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, actions balanced by counter-actions.
The feeling of this Chinese martial art is better experienced than explained, but Master Hung has a tip: ‘Your shoulders are like a lid covering a cooking pot If you let your elbows go loose, the energy will fly away just as steam escapes.’ Chinese culture has been bubbling away longer in Tainan than in any other city in Taiwan, It served as the island’s capital until 1887 yet its roots go back to the 1620s, when the Dutch set up a base here to fight against Spain. Taiwan’s all-too-interesting 17th century saw the Dutch kick out the Spanish, Chinese Ming Dynasty exiles expel the Dutch and finally Qing Dynasty invaders defeat the Ming forces. This parade of rulers left a legacy that stands today, in the walls of old Dutch forts, and the roofs and pillars of temples – Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian.
You can taste the history at Du Hsiao Yueh restaurant. The pork mince in its signature noodle dish is cooked in a pot that’s been in use for three decades. Its predecessor, now in a glass case, dates from 1895. ‘My great-grandfather started the restaurant,’ says Mrs Hong, ‘We’ve kept his original recipe as a secret. When you’re dining here, we like you to feel you’re trying something classical,’ Just across the street, One2 Tea House is the heir to an even older tradition. The interior design is modem, but the aim of the shop’s founders is to tempt teenagers away from the sugary fancies of bubble tea and back to the purer tastes of the Chinese tea ceremony. The Yushan Winter Oolong Tea comes from plants grown on the island at 1,400 metres. While spring harvest tea tends to be sweet and floral, leaves picked in winter lend the brew a more robust taste.
The port area, called Anping, was once the centre of the island’s trade in the late 19th century. There are a few relics here of the times when linen-suited Westerners fanned themselves in porticoed buildings, inspecting cargoes stamped ‘Choicest Formosa Oolong’. The so-called Anping Tree House is a former British trading post where the warehouses have been invaded by banyan trees. Giant roots and limbs snake across floors and walls – an Industrial Age version of Cambodia’s temples of Angkor. As empires have come and gone, the banyan trees have quietly made their claim.