Monday, March 24, 2014

Taiwan Travelogue: Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall

White sparkles reflect from the marbled walls of the octagon-shaped building, which stands with a majestic and commanding presence on an elevated platform, and appears as though the building is wearing a blue-glazed tile roof with the red accent as its hat. It is unmistakably the colors of the flag of the Republic of China, adorning the hallowed stature of this building which was erected since the year 1976 in memory of an important figure in the history of Taiwan.

One should not be unfamiliar with the historical figure of Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek (蒋介石), who had cast an eminent shadow in shaping the country (Taiwan) to her identity in the modern era of today. The first President of the Republic of China and a prominent or influential member of the Kuomintang (KMT), Chiang has indeed left many imprints in the history of both China and Taiwan till this very day. (Details and history of the late Chiang Kai Shek can be found here)

Following Chiang Kai Shek's death in year 1975, orders and works on this establishment began the year after as an effort to mourn the departure of their leader and to seal the years of his service and contributions in memory for the pondering of all future generations. A Funeral Committee, it seemed, was set up then to start work on building a memorial for the late president, and the same designer for the Grand Hotel, Yang Cho-Cheng (or CC Yang) was called upon to conceptualize the design for this memorial. The groundbreaking ceremony took place that very same year in the month of October, on the date of the 31st as a tribute to the 90th birthday of Chiang, and it was only five years later; in the year of 1980, that the memorial hall was finally opened to the public, on the 5th of April to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the president's death.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, stands today as one of the most visited sites in Taipei; the capital of Taiwan, where many tourists flock to the vast grounds to pay tribute to the late President Chiang Kai Shek. The locals make up the crowds here too, gathering for group activities or recreational purposes as the place is also surrounded by a large square area of a park flanked by two other buildings; the National Concert Hall and the National Theater which skirts the surrounding of the grounds.

While it is erected in the memory of the late president and nationalist of the country, the design and architecture of the place is still very much influenced by the basic rules of the Chinese beliefs, or even the art of feng shui, just like most of the Chinese-inspired designs are everywhere.
It is interesting to take note of the many design features incorporated into the establishment, telling and spinning their own reasons for the inclusion in the architecture.

Interesting features of the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall:
1. The building is designed in an octagonal shape; which insinuates the symbol of the number '8'. If you can remember or are familiar with the Chinese beliefs, the number is regarded with high preference due to its auspicious homonym loosely sounding like good fortune and prosperity. It is commonly favored among the Chinese communities and it is general knowledge that this number is so popular that you can see it appearing or even assimilated into part of the lifestyle of the society. In fact, anything that incorporates the number is said to bring good luck to the owner.

2. There are exactly 89 steps leading to the memorial hall; on both sides, making it two sets of 89 flight of steps to the hall. Most things go in pairs, but the number of steps leading to the hall is said to symbolize the age of the late president at the time of his passing.

3. The emblem of the Kuomintang (KMT), or also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party graced the vaulted ceiling in the hallowed halls of the building.

4. The main entrance is composed of two large doors, like most grand opening into a majestic hall. The doors are measured to be approximately 16 meters high each and weighing about 75 tons respectively.

5. The hallowed halls emit a solemn presence with the cool marbled walls and high ceilings, with the large bronze statue erected in the image of the late President Chiang Kai Shek in a relaxed sitting position and dressed in a Chinese traditional costume, commanding the attention from all who enters the hall. The statue is flanked by two flag poles displaying the national flag of Taiwan, and guarded by two members deployed from the armed forces in the country, who stands still throughout their shifts during the opening hours of the memorial hall.
(The other highlight of the monument is the changing of the guards on shift, which takes place every hour and will be further elaborated in the later part of the post).

6. Behind the bronze statue is the inscription of three words; Ethics, Democracy and Science.
Inscriptions on the side further says "The purpose of life is to improve the general life of humanity" and "The meaning of life is to create and sustain subsequent lives in the universe". (Quoted from here and here)

7. The statue was positioned to be facing; in a rather significant and symbolic manner towards the Presidential Office Building which was also coincidentally in the geographic direction of the actual location of mainland China. Coincidence? I'd think not, as there is just too much association with the background of Chiang with both, and besides, you don't haul an entire committee or design team who just creates a structure as important as a memorial hall purely based on architectural instincts. Therefore, it is a symbolic effort on that part, not to mention the thought that goes through the minds of these people as they brainstorm and crunch the nerves in their brain to come up with a monument which does more than just hold the memories of the late president alone.

Interesting things To Do while you are here
If you are thinking that this is just a national monument where you come, take a look, snap a photo, linger for a while and then proceed to your next destination, well, that is not quite the case as imagined.
Of course, while the above does apply (to a certain extent), there are also interesting things to look out for while you are here, besides checking out the interesting features of the building as listed above, there are also events or activities which are of highlights on the grounds of this memorial hall.
For instance, there is a library and museum at the ground/lower level of the memorial hall which showcases the life of the late Chiang Kai Shek through the various exhibits on display and also the documentation of the history of Taiwan and its modern development, preceded by the era of the Republic of China.

The most interesting highlight and that one should not miss (I highly recommend, and I mean it), is the Changing of the Guards ceremony inside the Memorial Hall.
As mentioned above, the statue is guarded, during the opening hours of the memorial hall by two military members who would be standing, stone cold and rooted to their positions while on duty.
Yes, just like the British guards or most palace guards around the world, these men take their duties seriously and you will not even see or hear a sound nor a flinch from these men as they stand honorably to their guarding position.
Sometimes, I even wonder if they are still breathing or even blinking - they are that good.
(I do NOT, and I repeat, encourage anyone to try to test the guards while they are on duty; though it may also be rather impossible to do as they are also protected beyond the reach of nosy visitors. Even if they are not, please, out of pure respect for the dignity of others, do these men a favor and just observe their honorable duties from afar. They do not deserve to be ridiculed, for they are highly trained and skilled in their professions and deserve the highest level of respect).

Back to the ceremony, the guards on duty fall out and are replaced by the next batch of armed men every hour, and this is the ceremony which is anticipated and witnessed by many.
It is one of the highlights of the memorial hall and I must say, it was a very impressive ceremony, having witnessed it with my own eyes.

These are impressive young men who made up part of the dignified military population of the country, who have taken their oaths to serve the people and for the greater purpose of defending their country when in need and for that alone, they deserve the credit for their dedication and spirits.
The entire ceremony takes about 15-20 minutes, and silence is observed but trust me, you won't even squeak except with that occasional "Wow"you are silently uttering in your mind as you watch the whole changing in progress.
It takes place every hour, so there is not really a chance you will miss it on purpose unless you are truly not interested.
I would highly recommend to check this out, as the ceremony is simple yet elaborate and it is something which would be truly insightful on your visit to the memorial hall.

The memorial hall stands on a vast area of grounds, at the east end of the Memorial Hall Square which is basically a park; also known as the Liberty Park (自由廣場). However, for politically inclined reasons, the locals would still prefer the place; including the entire area of the grounds and park to be known as Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall Park (中正紀念公園)

While the Memorial hall is the centre of attention here, there is no way one could miss the sights of two brightly colored buildings; adorned with the traditional bright red and orange and the upwardly arched roofs in that typical Chinese architectural design which are the National Theater(國家戲劇院) and the National Concert Hall(國家音樂廳).

Be prepared to spend at least an hour or two (minimum), on the grounds, as the area is large and requires a lot of walking (yes, just walking on your feet). Also factor in the walking time for exploring and include the Changing of the Guards ceremony; and if you have more time at hand, check out the library and museum at the lower grounds of the memorial hall too.
It would be sufficient to cover the grounds in two hours or so, based on my personal experience.

Admission is FREE, and I would recommend the morning to check out the place before you head to other locations as it could get hotter in the afternoons to walk on large grounds like these. If you are there during winter, you could even risk showers of rain in the afternoons and therefore, I would say mornings are your best bet to fully enjoy your visit to this place.
It should be included in all itineraries of Taipei; unless you have been here before, or you are simply not interested in monuments (which would be really rare for most travelers who just cover almost every notable place when in a foreign country, right? ;-) )

Getting there
With the MRT in Taipei, it is relatively easy to get here.
Take either the Red or Green Line to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall Station; or also known as the C.K.S Memorial Hall.

The unmistakable hints of blue and white will lead you to your exit to the Memorial hall as you follow the explanatory directions in the station.

Go through a park and you will soon be greeted by the familiar scenes as pictured in the earlier parts of this post.

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