This is a story of days long passed, but I tell it here for the first time. It shows a typical Asian attitude, and I hope that it has – like old cognac – not lost its peculiar appeal.
I have a friend who has a nice position at TV. He is an Austrian citizen and has a very charming kind of winsomeness. Everyone falls for him. I had worked for some time with him and then moved to another job.
One day he phoned me from the city where he worked.
"Felix," he said, "what would you say if you could go on a sightseeing tour of Taiwan completely free of charge?"
From the window of my office I looked at the spires of the cathedral of Cologne.
"Impossible", I responded.
"You don't know what an important person I have become. I just got an invitation from a public relations agency to visit the Republic of China as their guest of honour. They promised me two airline tickets for me and my spouse or companion."
"Is this the beginning of a co-operation or co-production in TV?"
"No obligations attached, but of course I will see, I will see."
"Two persons," I observed. "That is great. Whom will you take with you?"
"You are the only one with slanted eyes I know. This is your hour."
He always kidded me in this way, because I had studied Chinese. In fact I have fair hair and green eyes, you never see in Asia.
A long flight with three or four stopovers brought us to Hong Kong where we had to change planes. We drank coffee at the Eagle's Nest of the Hilton Hotel which was at that time the best outlook on the island. The sight was splendid. Not a single layer of smog.
Our departure for Taipei was delayed for hours. We arrived there in deep darkness. Nobody awaited us in the arrival hall. That was understandable, because it was very late. A few luxury cars stood in front of the airport. I went from driver to driver and asked them, if they were here to pick us up. The answer was no, and they drove off one after the other. From a desk in the arrival hall I got help to phone the three expensive hotels, where special guests usually stayed. I wanted to know if there were rooms reserved in our names. They were not.
When we finally left the airport building, all the taxis and all the buses were gone. At that time Taiwan was under martial law, and there existed no official nightlife.
Only one dirty van was parked in front of the arrival hall. The driver came over and asked us if we needed a hotel room. He could bring us free of charge to a very nice hotel in midtown Taipei.
We had no way to know if he was a decent driver or a robber, but we saw no other choice than to accept. It was a long ride through the night. The hotel was indeed in a small soi in the middle of the city. At the front door greeted us the inscription "Off Limits", which meant it was not suitable for American servicemen to go in.
If you have seen the movie "The world of Suzie Wong", you have an impression of what kind of hotel it was. The rooms were big and untended, the price very low. The guests were supposed to spend their money on more rewarding pleasures, to be found at the bar or the lobby. We were tired from our long intercontinental trip and just went to bed.
The next morning at the breakfast table my friend could hardly hold his breath when he told me, what he just had learned. He had called the Government Information Office, whose guest of honour he was, to inform them, we had arrived, but they told him, that they had never heard his name, knew of no invitation and could do nothing for him.
"What do you make of that?"
"It is an enigma," I replied, "but it will soon be solved." Just before I had received in my room a phone call from a Chinese editor who worked for a big Radio and TV corporation.
"Felix," he said, "I have heard about your unlucky arrival. Let me invite you to a welcome lunch."
"How did you find my hotel?" I asked surprised.
"That was hard work!" he responded.
I recognized that sleeping in such a place was a big loss of face for us. But this was just for one night, and our face would change soon.
The restaurant, where we met, was a small intimate place. My Chinese friend had brought two colleagues with him, and we sat down to eat a cordial meal. The main course was a chicken baked in clay and cracked open at the table. It tasted delicious.
"This dish," explained our Chinese colleague, "is called "Beggars Chicken" because once a hungry beggar fetched a free running chicken on the road, encrusted it with loam and hid it in a low burning wayside fire. After a few hours the result was what you taste now."
"Excellent!" smacked my friend with a full mouth.
The host continued: "We chose this dish as an allusion to your present situation."
"I am not a beggar," exclaimed my friend, I am invited as a guest of honour by the Government Information Office!"
"Let me explain to you your present predicament," volunteered our host.
"You" – he addressed my friend -"are a citizen of Austria. The state of Austria has just given his voice in the UN to expel the Republic of China from the United Nations. So you can imagine that an Austrian is not welcome here."
"I live and work in Germany," corrected my friend them. "Germany is not a member of the UNO." (It became one in the following year).
"You received your invitation because of the friendship between Austria and the Republic of China. This friendship has been broken by your side."
"If that is so, why didn't I get a cable that I was disinvited?"
"You know the bureaucrats."
"That is a problem our countries have in common," agreed my friend.
Our hosts were not amused. They explained to us that we two officially had never arrived in the Republic of China and therefore were invisible to Taiwanese eyes.
They told us too that it was risky for them to be seen with us no-persons, and they had only come as colleagues to explain to us the situation.
For this we did thank them.
"What next?" asked my friend.
"A few nice days in Hong Kong", I suggested. So we looked for an airline office, to get an earlier return flight. Our tickets were of a kind, we learned, that could not be changed. So we returned to our Suzie Wong Hotel. Our main problem was, we had not enough cash. We had assumed to be pampered by an all inclusive sightseeing tour and only had brought some pocket money along. In Hong Kong I could pick up any amount from my Merrill Lynch account, but here we were ostracised to stay on an isolated island.
Taiwan was at that time cash-crazy. There were ATMs on every street corner, but people only used them to draw cash before they entered a restaurant. This may sound absurd to my Thai friends in LOS who always pay with credit cards, when they go out, hoping
that somehow the bill might get lost in transaction. I had a credit card on me, but it was not accepted in Taiwan, neither by ATMs nor by banks.
Without money we were forced to stay at our Off Limits guesthouse. We could just afford the room rates, but not the special attractions which flooded the bar, when a neighbouring cabaret club was closed.
I was not disappointed of our change in guest status. Now I could prove to my friend that he had been right to take me along. With the official sightseeing tour cancelled, I could play Cicerone to him. I was no stranger to Taiwan. My second cousin had lived and worked there, before he moved on to Thailand, and I had visited him as often as I could. He had a diplomat's car, with which we cruised the island from north to south, independent from any official guide or surveillance. He did not speak Chinese, I did, he knew the country, I did not, so our excursions were of mutual benefit.
From this experience we profited now. We rented an inexpensive taxi, drove to beaches for swimming and visited landmarks of interest und natural monuments which might give a fascinating background to future TV productions.
My cousin had left Taiwan, but a distant uncle of me lived at the same place in a beautiful bungalow over the rice fields. When he heard about our misfortune, he invited us to a Korean barbeque with lots of Gin tonic. He worked in Taiwan for an American pharmaceutical company which was researching the life cycle of a parasite which entered the body of rice farmers through holes in their feet and than ate its way up to the liver and the lungs. Recently I read that my uncle's research has been successful, but now some environmentalists protest, saying that saving the farmers' lives do harm to insects which live in the rice fields.
I found out that a Chinese poet, of whom I had translated a book for publication in Europe, was just staying in Taipei. He was not afraid of being seen with outcasts. He invited us first to a Sichuan restaurant with extremely spicy food and a few days later to his home, where we were to meet with leading artists. From them we learned how awful the intellectual climate in Taiwan had deteriorated. Three respected authors, whom I knew personally, were just imprisoned for fifteen years under the pretext they where spies, which was an absolute ridiculous accusation.
"Now I am glad," said my friend, "that I am not a guest of the Government Information Office. I do not want to be indebted to such a government."
"You come from Europe," reflected the poet, "where you enjoy your liberal democracy. But you should not forget that from the 150 or more countries on this planet the great majority suffers under repressive governments. The freedom of speech you have is a rare exception for mankind, in the rest of the world it is normal to cut off tongues that speak out."
A few months after our return to cold Europe I found a cheque in the post. It was posted in Austria, and it was issued for "Travel expenses in Taiwan." I phoned my friend, if he knew about this. He did indeed. He had been in Vienna and given a long talk to the "Friends of Taiwan," who had invited us. It turned out he spoke with enthusiasm about the beautiful scenery of the country, the courtesy of the simple people, the Chinese food – especially the beggar's chicken – and about the great future he hoped this island state would have in years to come.
His listeners were so impressed that they decided to reimburse our personal expenses in Taiwan. As they used in their calculation international day rates, the amount was much higher than what we had really spent. I had no qualms to accept it because it came from Austrian sources. I only regretted that I had not been able to spend this money during my stay on the island.
The next time I travelled to Taiwan on official business – a few years later – I was booked into one of the newest marble and chrome hotels. The rooms were comfy but sterile. On my first free evening I took a taxi to the soi with my old Suzie Wong hotel. To my disgust it had disappeared completely and was replaced by an expensive high-rise with glass facades. All the beautiful nightbirds had been dispersed into the four winds. Such is progress.