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In this excerpt, we join Reeves and family in Taipei, where they are booked in a hotel that has just suffered a fire of suspicious origin.
Day four of our adventure also happened to be the Fourth of July. Colin picked up the story:
Up at the crack of dawn in Tokyo, spent a couple of painless hours in the air with Singapore girls. The landing strip in Taipei is lined with golf courses and antiaircraft guns. Tropical jungle with pleasantly unbearable heat and humidity. Our hotel, the Grand Palace, is perched high on a hill and of truly monumental scale. It had starred on CNN and in all the international newspapers three days ago because the top several floors were in photogenic flames. The staff, noticeably looser and more jovial than their Nipponese counterparts, greeted us warmly....
I'm not too good with physical descriptions, but I can say that if you saw a shot of this place in a movie there would be a big Chinese gong sound accompanying the image. It seems like a throwback to some colonial time, and because it was empty and the staff was so jovial it reminded me of a Chinese version of the Hotel New Hampshire. I instantly loved it.
The warm greeting was understandable. After seeing the fire footage, we talked about whether or not to change our plans. The vote was unanimous: No way! It turned out that we were five of only nineteen guests being served by a large staff. Everyone else had canceled after seeing pictures of the fire, which destroyed the top couple of floors of the "new building" of one of the world's most striking hotels, visible for many miles in the style of a giant pagoda over the city.
I was told later by a magazine editor in Hong Kong that the Palace was having problems before the fire. Some traveling businessmen were avoiding the place because it does not allow unattached working girls upstairs. Taipei's sex tourism, they say, is second only to Bangkok's -- you can buy most everything, except a haircut, at the places marked by neon barber poles.
From Family Travels: Around the World in 30 (or So) Days
Actually, prostitution is part of the tradition. While we were in the country, a new law was passed out of a parliamentary committee for debate that would levy fines of more than three quarters of a million dollars for clients of child prostitutes. Newspapers reported that the government seemed ready to try to rid the country of tens of thousands of child prostitutes.
Our rooms were immense in the old style, before air conditioning and before the universal sleekness of first-class hotels, with high ceilings, polished wood floors, and great balconies overlooking the city. There had apparently been stories in the Taipei papers speculating that the fire was arson, presumably to collect insurance money. When the manager spoke to us about the fire he kept referring to it as a "fire from natural causes," all in one breath. If electricity is natural, he had a case. The wiring, with copper showing through, looked as if it had been put in by the local equivalent of Thomas Edison.
The other big story in the China Post was about a shoot-out at the airport: "Gangster Shih Chih-chin had passed the customs inspection without his five hidden handguns being detected. He was discovered by an alert policeman to be carrying guns under his clothes. He shot himself to death after being wounded by police fire."
The pool down the hill was about the largest I've ever seen and Fiona and I headed for it. This was double-hundred country: the temperature was over a hundred degrees (Fahrenheit) and the air was heavy with humidity. Then we all stuffed ourselves into a taxi and headed for town. Catherine liked the fare. Four dollars.
Taipei itself was not impressive. On the walking-bicycle-motorbike-automobile progression that defines the cities of "developing" countries, Taipei is in transition from mopeds to cars. The new prosperity of the country shows in the bustle of the streets, a new central railroad station, and new subway construction everywhere, but the housing, stalls, and open storefronts are still as they were when the country was poorer. Food is still being cooked in many places outdoors on the streets. The only new and tall downtown building -- excepting world-class hotels built by those old Taiwanese families, Sheraton, Hilton, and Hyatt -- is a twelve-story Japanese department store, a Mitsukoshi. "Lots of mangy mutts," was Conor's observation. "Ramshackle sprawl," added Colin.
Fiona did not like the way dogs looked or were treated. But she liked palm trees, put-ons, and people. "I used to think there were palm trees only in California, Florida, and Hawaii. What did I know, I'm only ten years old," she wrote.
And she ended her report of the first day with:
There were a lot of people selling things on the sidewalk. I didn't like any of the toys, but I did like the calligraphy a man was doing in a shop and I asked him how much it cost and he gave it to me. He was really nice.
(Back home in Pacific Palisades, we took the calligraphy to our local experts at the Rickshaw Chinese Laundry, who after consultation with parents and grandparents, said the message of the sheet was something like an Oriental version of "The truth shall make you free" -- and good men would find that truth in the temple.)
Excerpted by permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing. Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Reeves O'Neill Inc. All rights reserved.