Taipei was the second stop on my very first trip to Asia. At the time, April 1985, it was still under martial law. When I was a kid, I knew the country by an assortment of names: Taiwan, Formosa, Nationalist China, and Free China. I liked the sound of “Free China.”
Clearing Customs was no big problem, even though I felt it necessary to apologize for having two shirts that were made in China. All the literature I’d read on traveling to Taiwan warned that items made in China were prohibited, so I tried to mitigate my political faux-pas. What could they do, take my shirts away? The Customs inspector nodded as his hands flipped through my luggage, but made no comment.
Once cleared Customs and allowed out into the teeming, sweating masses of the arrival mob, we made our way into the main terminal and I experienced total culture shock. Every 100 feet or so, there were brown-uniformed soldiers in full battle gear, carrying M16 rifles. To me, they looked like Viet Cong. A chill ran down my spine and squeezed my adrenal glands. It was only ten short years after the Vietnam War had ended.
Our hosts picked us up at the airport. The head guy, Joseph, was a jovial but all-business guy. (I crossed him once. Once.) My boss told him he looked like the Dalai Lama. It was said that Joseph never met an animal he wouldn’t eat.
We drove out of CKS airport towards Taipei; I remember it as a long drive, not unpleasant. Modern highway, not as crowded as Hong Kong, and nice rolling terrain. Joseph pointed out rice paddies, cemeteries built on hillsides (so the deceased would have a good view – seriously), the Grand Hotel; I was impressed.
Until we got to our hotel, the Taipei Hilton International. Despite the Hilton brand, which I reasonably assumed was one of the classier places to stay, the place looked and felt like WWII had just ended, and it smelled about the same way.