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Thriving in an Atmosphere of Freedom

Hip Taipei Making its Mark


It's a city full of creativity, freedom and laughter. Compared to Beijing, Taipei shines as a fun, multicultural town bursting with vitality.



Hip Taipei Making its Mark

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 401 )

Those who have spent time in Taipei in the past all feel sentimentally attached to this beautiful changing basin.

In the eyes of Hsu Chih-chien, who recently stepped down as commissioner of Taipei's Department of Urban Development after a 28-year career in the city government, Taipei is the rare city that affords views of the mountains and the ocean within 30 minutes. A half-hour excursion from the city's plains up to 1,120-meter high Cising Mountain (literally Seven-Star Mountain) in Yangmingshan National Park gives visitors a panoramic view of the East China Sea off the island's northern coast.

In internationally acclaimed writer Kenneth Hsien-yung Pai's most famous work "Taipei People," he portrays Taipei as chaotic and ugly, but also fun, complex and ever changing. Describing himself as "forever a Taipei person," Pai said that no matter where he ends up around the globe, Taipei remains the place he feels most at home, whether working or relaxing.

With the opening of nonstop weekend charter flights between China and Taiwan, Taipei will become an important hub for cross-Taiwan Strait exchanges and invariably will end up being compared to China's political and economic center Beijing.

So what fascinating attractions and unique features can Taipei offer when stacked up against China's capital, which has six times as many people and covers an area 62 times larger than that of its Taiwanese counterpart?

Chinese Culture's Desert Rose

If one sees Beijing as being rich in Chinese history, Taipei is, in the words of the city's former director of the Department of Cultural Affairs Lung Ying-tai, "the desert rose in the Chinese cultural domain."

Carrying green Eslite Bookstore bags as they leave the chain's flagship outlet in Taipei's Xinyi district, a few visitors from Hong Kong set out into the night, smiles on their faces because of the culture they've been able to embrace in Taipei.

The works in their shopping bags blend Taiwan's literary past and present: Lung Ying-tai's Wild Fire, Chiang Hsun's Reflections on Beauty, and Fu Pei-jung's To re-examine Zhu Xi's Annotations of Lun Yu.

Moving from the eastern to the northern part of the city and the National Palace Museum, Chinese and Japanese tourists flock to the gift store to buy ornaments and cookies patterned on the famed 19th century "jade cabbage" so they can show off to their friends back home that they went to one of the world's top four museums.

The Chinese treasures the Kuomintang brought with them when they retreated to Taiwan in 1949 have taken root and come alive in their Taipei home, the National Palace Museum, which draws over 1.5 million visitors a year.

Some contend that where Beijing features heavy, staid large-scale productions, Taiwan showcases variety. If you want Peking Opera, there is Wu Hsing-kuo's Contemporary Legend Theatre; for Taiwanese Folk Opera, there is Ming Hwa Yuan Taiwanese Opera Co. Stan Lai's Performance Workshop Theatre sets the standard for drama and Chinese crosstalk plays, and Lin Hwai-min's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre is world renowned for modern dance.

And in recent years, local pop culture, from singer Jay Chou's concerts to contemporary Taiwanese musicals has taken China by storm, unreservedly conquering Beijing.

The Repository of Chinese Culture

Chinese history has sprung to life in Taipei, growing full of sound and color.

But Chinese culture isn't Taipei's only advantage. Because Taiwan historically has been subject to intrusions by outsiders, the city has a rich and diversified cultural heritage. 

Performance Workshop founder Lai, who returned from the United States at the age of 12 in 1966 to live on Taipei's Zhongshan North Rd., Section 3, remembers Taipei in the early 1970s as "very internationalized. All you saw were bars catering to American military personnel and shops selling counterfeit records."

But Taipei's residents don't have a uniform memory, with every person having a different imprint of the city in their minds.

Taipei has been a "fatherless city" over its 123-year history, making it difficult to identify the city's cultural genes.

When outsiders first landed in Taiwan around 400 years ago, the Spaniards opened sulfur mines when they arrived in Beitou while the Dutch built a fort in Danshuei. Then, in the late 19th century, Ching-dynasty official Shen Pao-chen built Taipei, which was followed shortly after by 50 years of Japanese colonial rule and then the arrival of the KMT government retreating from China to Taiwan, which was then defended by a substantial American military presence.

 "It's just like with genes; the more complex the better," agree trendsetting television producer Wang Wei-chung and Lai, both mainlanders in their early 50s. Taipei's residents have been immersed throughout history in a diversity of cultures, with a profound cultivation of internationalization that has long influenced the city's cultural breadth.

The Self-reliance of Taipei Residents

If one sees Beijing as having a patriarchal government providing all-encompassing security, Taipei residents have learned to be self-sufficient under the rather inefficient management of their city's authorities.

Taipei natives understand that only the fittest survive under the law of the jungle. The majority of Taiwan's thriving ICT (Information Communication Technology) sector, for example, gets its marching orders from the nation's capital. Alexander Huang, Microsoft's regional director for Greater China, says that from 1980 to 2000, all of Taiwan's high-tech entrepreneurs were Taipei natives, a reflection of the city's global competitiveness in which it has taken so much pride.

The lifting of martial law in 1987 and the ensuing liberalization of the media gave a jolt of energy to the independent-minded city's spiritual freedom.

In Taipei, you can criticize or file complaints against officials who abuse their power. Average Joes and high-ranking officials wait in the same lines to buy movie tickets and eat the same food, and people in coffee shops who probe and criticize current issues won't draw disdainful looks.

Freedom is like air -- Taipei residents help themselves to heavy portions of both every day.

Two of television producer Wang's best-known shows, "The Big Pressure Cooker," which parodies local politicians, and "Kang and Hsi Have Come," which prides itself on breaking social taboos, are both hotly debated at Peking University, but Wang concedes the two programs are unlikely to be mainstays on Chinese television anytime soon.

"Taipei is a free country. If these ideas are tried on the mainland, it might not be OK," Wang says.  

Taipei is a city full of the sound of spontaneous laughter 'guffaws, giggles, chortles 'sounds hard to come by in Beijing.

This carefree attitude rarely found in an ethnic Chinese community has been forged through a long period of democratization.

For the past 20 years, Taipei has been a living laboratory for Chinese democracy. A reporter from Beijing visiting Taipei in mid-March for the country's presidential election said he was stunned that the supporters of the winning and losing candidates walked on the same streets and rode the same subway cars on election night without losing control. Everybody accepted the results, he observed, a sign that Taipei was advancing toward democratic maturity.

Following a visit to Taipei, Chinese writer Shen Ning described admiringly how city commuters would stand on the right side of MRT escalators, leaving the left side open for people wanting to walk up the moving stairs. This civilized behavior compelled Shen to call Taiwan's capital the highest quality city among ethnic Chinese communities.

Taipei residents' tolerance of Taiwan's polarized politics is ingrained in their daily lives and manifests the city's respect for diverse cultures and ethnic groups.

Signs of this abound, whether it's the presence of a gay bookstore near National Taiwan University squeezed between two churches or the fact that of the 15,000 couples married in Taipei in 2007, 20% of them included a foreign national.

The Soft Power of Freedom

The city's diverse cultural environment and its free atmosphere inspire creativity and help Taipei forge a level of "soft power" that cannot be overlooked.

When international media workers see Taipei's Eslite Bookstore, creative markets and cultural circles in action, they all say, "Taipei is a city that is seriously underestimated."

Writer Han Liang-lu suggests Taipei has a product that no other Asian country possesses.

"We have a product called ‘cultural elites.' The majority of residents in other cities are farmers, laborers and businesspeople. Hong Kong and Malaysia do not have them, and in Singapore, they're a small minority. These people are Taiwanese society's valuable assets," Han says.

According to statistics from the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, 40 percent of the city's enterprises and 10 percent of those working in the city are engaged in cultural and creative industries. 

These cultural and creative talents act as generators of popular trends, the creators of the city's allure. From pop music and Chinese cultural works to product design, Taipei possesses a deep well of cultural output capacity

Landy Chang, executive director of Neuron Innovations and the former general manager of Magic Stone Records, says that with Taiwanese artists selling 2 billion albums in China per year (including counterfeits), Taipei is not only marketing songs or singers but Taiwan's superior lifestyle.

"Taipei is a type of brand," he insists.

Taipei's aura of freedom brings with it unexpected forms of creativity, such as a shop that sells more than 70 flavors of ice cream, including the world's only "pork knuckle ice cream," or Eslite's flagship store with its more than 1 million titles, making it one of the world's biggest bookstores.

Taipei also has thousands of 24-hour convenience stores and KTVs, and the common use of notebook computers in MRT stations and coffee shops clearly signals its high broadband penetration rate, the second highest of any city in the world.

As Taipei denizens have begun savoring life, they are also searching for new fields of endeavor and commercial opportunities.

One example of this is the "creative markets" that have popped up around the city in the past two years. These markets showcase local artists and designers who showcase their individuality by creating products that blend foreign techniques and local materials. Zhongshan North Rd.'s "wedding street," for example, has recently become a cluster of workshops that are home to furniture, apparel and interior designers.

Aside from these designer outlets, Taipei's 24/7 lifestyle has spawned another booming commercial scene.

With Taipei's "cultured crowd" living mostly at night and high-tech employees frequently working late, convenience and fast food stores have found it profitable to stay open all night, and even the National Palace Museum and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum have extended their operating hours on Saturdays. Eslite's policy of keeping its bookstores open around the clock has gained the attention of London-based Monocle, a magazine devoted to international affairs, business, culture and design, which hoped the Eslite model would blossom in big cities around the globe.

Calling the Shots in Chinese Cultural Innovation?

Whether in creative industries or electronics, Taipei is thoroughly aware that it can only succeed by evolving into a small and beautiful innovative city rather than by competing head-on with the "big and domineering" Beijing.

While some are skeptical that Taipei has what it takes to shine among ethnic Chinese cities, many others are optimistic, driven by their belief that the city has outstanding residents.

Taipei has 250,000 university students, or one-tenth of the city's population, and has more university graduates as a percentage of city residents than Tokyo, Seoul, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. The caliber of its residents is a key factor in driving the city's progress.

If Beijing's massive Dubai-scale projects can be equated to giving it a man-made heart, then Taipei in fact is an organic heart that pumps consistently.

This organism has Taipei residents beginning to live more closely in harmony with their environment, walking, riding bicycles and riding the MRT to get around town.

But Beijing is making great leaps forward and rapidly gaining ground. Chiang Hsun warns, "Taiwan culturally is only five to 10 years ahead. The other side is learning quickly."

Taipei of course cannot treat the threat lightly, and local residents will not let the superior lifestyle they have built from within easily slip away.

As a city that historically has faced numerous twists and turns and been controlled by strong powers, Taipei has slowly mustered self-confidence as it has modernized and globalized. People are willing to give themselves to Taipei, living in and contributing to the city, while at the same time enjoying life on their own terms.

Taipei has never stopped evolving. It is not only a city, but a place that has begun to spawn a new spirit of vitality.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Chinese Version: 酷台北 樂活城