A Hint of Manhattan
Once merely a place of transit from one destination to another, Taipei Station has become a glamorous venue to stop and enjoy in its own right.
A Hint of ManhattanBy Jessie Chu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 489 )
Have you noticed yet? The drab and worn out Taipei Railway Station has turned into an attractive and fun place!
Recent visitors to the capital's main railway/mass transit station must have discovered some dramatic changes. The large ticket office and seats for waiting passengers have been removed from the lobby on the ground floor of the station building. Thanks to a costly interior renovation, the lobby has turned into a beautiful spacious plaza. Surrounding the plaza on all four sides are ticket booths and dozens of newly added glitzy shops. I was struck with surprise when I recently rushed through the renovated station lobby to catch a high-speed railway train. So I decided to take some time out later to take a closer look. On that occasion I discovered that the new Taipei Station has truly become an interesting place.
In the past I would not spend any unnecessary time in the rather uninviting station lobby. After buying my train ticket, I would hurriedly rush to the platforms in the basement to catch my train. But the new lobby has so many attractions that it is almost impossible to rush through without stopping here and there.
After its facelift the railway station is no longer a mere transfer hub, integrating train, subway, city bus and long-distance bus. It can serve as a destination in itself, since it is entirely possible to spend a whole day leisurely strolling around in the station building and its expansive underground concourses, shopping, wining and dining.
First, the sight of the station lobby, whose renovation is rumored to have cost NT$30 million, made me stop in my tracks. Its broad, uncluttered tile floor with a giant black-and-white checkerboard pattern made me feel for the first time that Taipei Station might be the gateway to a cosmopolitan city.
While some people have complained about the inconvenient disappearance of waiting-area chairs, the sheer sense of space, in combination with the natural light coming in from the lobby's skylight, makes it surprisingly reminiscent of the main lobby in New York's Grand Central Station. When I heard a traveler exclaim, "Now this is what I call a railway station fit for a capital city!" I felt proud to be a Taipei City resident. I couldn't help asking myself why the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) let this building languish as a dull, uninviting place for so many decades. Doesn't someone deserve a spanking?
An Unusual Sight – Long Queues of Eager Shoppers
After the renovation, more than 90 new shops have sprung up on all four sides of the lobby's central plaza. These include sit-down restaurants such as noodle vendor A-sha, conveyor-belt sushi restaurant Maru Sushi, and Taiwan's smallest McDonald's hamburger restaurant. And then there are dozens of shops selling a vast array of traditional brands of edible goodies from across Taiwan. There is Yu Jen Jai confectionery, Kobayashi cookies, Fengshing Food sweets, as well as fresh fruit-filled Swiss rolls and hot cheesecake from Japan. Touring the entire plaza will take half an hour at the very least. And this does not include time spent waiting in line.
In front of Uncle Tetsu's Cheese Cake, a bakery from Hakata on Japan's southern main island of Kyushu, the line of patiently waiting cake aficionados never gets shorter than ten meters. Customers wait ten or twenty minutes to get their hands on one of the 36 piping hot cheesecakes that come out of the oven every hour. Uncle Tetsu's is not the only store with queuing shoppers. Near the station's No. 2 South Entrance, Liufoo Hotel is selling Chinese-style lunchboxes at a preferential price during an introductory period. As every second lunch comes at half price, the shop is doing brisk business with customers preferring to wait in long lines rather than buy ready-to-go TRA lunches. Liufoo Hotel lunchboxes usually cost about NT$100 on average, which will still make them a powerful competitor for TRA lunches even after the special offer ends.
Travel Supply Center on the Go
The retail stores have more to offer than just take-out food and souvenirs. What surprised me most is that many directly cater to travelers' needs. One can find whatever it takes to go on a trip, even an unplanned one, and all the necessities that people in a hurry tend to forget at home or mistakenly leave behind somewhere along the way. At the Formosa Optical outlet you can have your eyesight checked and new eyeglasses fitted on the spot, get advice on medication at a Japanese pharmacy, purchase travel toiletries at Burt's Bees and buy comfortable leisure wear at Baleno's. Should your luggage still be incomplete, further travel accessories can be found on the second floor at the outlets of Japanese lifestyle brands Hands Tailung and Muji to Go. There's no need to go home and pack a suitcase should you feel the sudden urge to travel somewhere. And items that were lost on a trip can easily be replaced here.
If your shopping desires are not yet satisfied, you may wander the B1 retail area, which offers even more famous local specialties. On offer are high-quality snacks and delicacies that the discerning Taiwanese consumer will buy to eat at home, not the kind of souvenirs that are typically sold in tourist traps. There's Wang's Bakery from Taipei's Yonghe District, Laotienlu from Chengdu Road in downtown Taipei, which sells traditional Chinese delicacies, Kua Kua Yuan sweet potato products from Tainan's Hsinhua District, and Weifone dried meats from Kunming Road in old Taipei. Quite conveniently, these stores are located in the main concourse that leads to the train platforms. So if you don't have enough time to visit the respective main store location, you can still get all these famous snacks as a last-minute purchase on your way to the train.
Additional retail space has been created for Breeze Plaza on the station's B1 level, which is shopping heaven for beauty-conscious teenagers and office ladies. However, a warning is warranted: Don't set foot into this area unless you have plenty of time. On more than 300 square meters of floor space there is so much too see that you can accidentally get lost among the myriad items for sale. Trendy young ladies obsessed with all things Japanese should be particularly careful not to get too absorbed in shopping, or else they might miss their train. On sale are more than 15,000 must-have cosmetics, daily sundries and novel stationery items. These include many unique products that are directly imported from Japan such as the latest craze, facial masks with algae extracts, and all sorts of functional pantyhose.
When Travel Meets Art and Culture
Another surprise awaits visitors on the underground level beneath the plaza in front of the station. This retail shopping area, which opened in 2005 as the New World Shopping Center, did not prove very successful in recent years, with many stores closing down and no new tenants moving in. Now that Eslite Bookstore has taken over management, it has gotten a new lease on life with a revamped European-style interior and a new name, "Eslite Taipei Station." Eslite brings its trademark flare for culture to this shopping arcade, creating a fresh, artsy ambience in a place that was once entirely geared toward fast sales and fast profits.
Walking west from the shopping arcade, with a Starbuck's at its center, along the passage to the Kuo Kuang bus terminal, you will encounter an Eslite bookstore and stationery shop. From there charmingly decorated display windows will lead you down a flight of stairs to an "arts plaza," where paper cuttings by Taiwanese artist Jam Wu are on display. Flower and animal motifs cut from white paper are hanging from the ceiling above the stairs leading from B1 to the ground floor, greeting travelers as they emerge from underground.
Eslite's long-held credo is "a bookstore can be more than a bookstore." Eslite Taipei Station reveals an ambition to prove that "a railway station can be more than a railway station." Displayed along the underground corridors are illustrations and photographs highlighting travel themes, in the hope that hurried passers-by will slow down for a moment to take a breather and enjoy the art.
Herbal Soap versus Earthworm Scent
Among the many shops in this area, Ah Yuan's concept store is my favorite. In the store Ah Yuan, who has become famous with his handmade herbal soaps, showcases his passion for Taiwanese herbal remedies with a broad selection of teas and personal care products. When you step inside, a fresh, natural scent engulfs you. Following a friendly welcome from the store's staff and a cup of freshly brewed herbal tea, passengers easily recover from their travel fatigue.
The Demeter Fragrance Library next door is another store that draws attention with a novel approach to selling natural perfumes and essential oils. The shop, founded by several young entrepreneurs, presents different scents grouped in categories like books in a library. On sale are not only the typical pleasant scents used in classical perfumes, but also other smells that were composed by famous perfumers for a special olfactory experience. Opening the many drawers of a cabinet in front of the store releases a cornucopia of aromas: nature, fruits and vegetables, plants, alcohol, life, and even abstract scents. Would you like to know how an earthworm smells? Or would you rather like to get a whiff of a pair of pruning scissors? Then there is no harm in coming here and sniffing out unusual scents.
Usually railway station are only a transit point on the way to another place and not a destination in itself. But a spectacular transit hub can make travelers forget their weariness and worries and even become the most memorable place on the trip.
The Taipei Railway Station has changed, indeed!
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz