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How we experienced the Wan An air raid drill in Taipei
Taiwan has been conducting air raid drills since 1978; this year, the drill has been expanded to Taiwan's 22 counties and cities.
May 2019. I hadn’t been to Taiwan in over a decade; it was my husband’s first time to visit. There were more buildings in Taipei than I remembered. Taipei 101 was just as breathtakingly imposing, the food at Din Tai Fung was still as glorious, but I was itching to explore the surrounding areas.
On May 27th, we were scheduled to go on a tour of Shifen and Jiufen. The meeting place was GaKuDen Bakery near exit 4 of Ximen Station.
The night before, I checked my email to see if there were last-minute changes in the schedule. A good thing I did because there was a message from the tour operator that the bus wouldn’t be able to leave until after 2.00. There was going to be a Wan An air raid drill from 1.30 to 2.00 p.m. Neither vehicles nor pedestrians would be allowed on the streets during that time.
What is the Wan An air raid drill?
It’s an annual exercise simulating an air attack by Chinese military forces. Taiwan has been doing it for over forty years.
“The first Wan An drill was held in 1978 after Chiang Ching-kuo had been elected president by the National Assembly. Due to increased concerns over Taiwan’s safety after being removed from the UN in 1971, Chiang initiated an air raid preparedness drill for citizens to “Prepare for danger in times of peace” and dubbed it the “Mega Peace Exercise”. 萬安演習 Wanan exercise).” [Source: Taiwan News]
What happened during the drill
Ximen Station is just one stop away from the Taipei Main Station across the street from our apartment. It shouldn’t take too long to get there but because of the Wan An air raid drill, we left earlier than we originally planned. We didn’t want to be on the streets between 1.30 and 2.00 because people not taking the Wan An air raid drill seriously could be slapped with a hefty fine.
We reached GaKuDen Bakery before 1.00 p.m. We went in, checked out the breads and pastries, nothing really interested us so we exited the bakery, walked a little farther, discovered a shaved ice place called Ice Papa and, some two doors beyond it, a pricey-looking Japanese restaurant. We’d had a very late breakfast and we weren’t planning on having lunch in anticipation of the street food at Shifen Old Street. Still, a bowl of mango shaved ice couldn’t hurt.
After the delectable snack, we walked around the corner to find a place to smoke. It was nearing 1.30 p.m., it started drizzling and we wondered where we could go until the Wan An air raid drill was over. I wanted to go to the rest room, there wasn’t one at Ice Papa so the logical choice was to go to the fancy Japanese restaurant.
We chose Takao 1972. There was a lady at the reception desk by the front door. We asked if they had a rest room, she said they did and then we asked if we could stay inside during the Wan An air raid drill. We couldn’t unless we were paying customers. Fair enough. We could order sushi, nothing too heavy, that we could enjoy leisurely for half an hour.
Outside, the drizzle had turned into a downpour. There were very few vehicles on the street but I saw pedestrians, umbrellas over their heads, running like Godzilla was after them. Running to get out of the rain or to get indoors before the air raid drill began, I don’t know. Probably both.
At exactly 1.30, our phones lit up with message alerts. I couldn’t understand the message itself but since it was exactly 1.30, I assumed that it was a notification that the Wan An air raid drill had begun (we had switched to Taiwan telco SIM cards on the day we arrived). I learned later that sending message alerts to mobile phones was a feature added to the air raid drill in 2019.
Ten minutes passed and we were still waiting for our food. I stood up and walked toward the large glass windows to observe the street. The downpour had turned into a drizzle once more. The streets were empty except for the occasional pedestrian (white folk, mostly) ambling like they were oblivious to what was happening.
By 2.00 p.m., the streets slowly returned to normal. Vehicles and pedestrians reappeared, we were done with our food, and it was ready to find the tour bus that would take us to Shifen and Jiufen.
If that doesn’t sound ominous, well, that was 2019. A lot has happened since.
Wan An air drills in 2023
With tension between China and Taiwan escalating, the air drills have acquired more significance and scale in 2023.
Unlike in previous years, the drills will be expanded to include an administrative sector (township, city, or district) in each of Taiwan's 22 counties and cities, where even stricter measures will be enforced. In those areas, drivers must immediately park, and, along with pedestrians, must follow police instructions and enter the nearest air raid shelter…
Also differing from previous years, after the air raid sirens end at 2 p.m., local governments are responsible for conducting another half hour of drills. These will take stock of accommodations, water, electricity, and supplies within shelter and relief stations that were set up in coordination with charities, organizations, and volunteers for disaster victims. [Source: Taiwan News]
Visa-free travel to Taiwan extended until 2024
I’d like to visit Taiwan again. I want to see Sun Moon Lake a second time. And I want to explore Kaoshiung and Taichung more, and longer. I’d like to be able to bring my daughters to Jiufen and see the village that had been marketed as the inspiration for Spirited Away, even if it’s not really true.
Is it okay to go? I’m torn. A little voice in my head says it isn’t the safest time. But another voice says where is it safe anyway? We live in the Philippines, we’re smack in the middle of the dispute over South China Sea / West Philippine Sea (whatever you want to call it) that involves not only China and Taiwan, but also the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. The tension in the entire area, all the way to Japan and Korea, is so palpable that Vietnam banned the film Barbie over the drawing of a map.
The drawing depicts what has been called a representation of the “nine dash line,” which reinforces China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea (there are only eight lines in the “Barbie” map, and not in the shape dictated by actual global maps). Vietnam disputes those claims and believes it violates the country’s sovereignty. Officials subsequently pulled the release of “Barbie” in the territory. [Source: Variety]
Childish? Churlish? Not if you live in East Asia or Southeast Asia.