Taiwan’s politicians are known for their brawls in Parliament, pushing and slapping and throwing shoes at each other as they debate the terms of new legislation. It’s an apt analogy for all Taiwanese people, really: passionate, opinionated and genuinely concerned about making things better. In the capital city, progress is on view everywhere but it is peppered with just enough of the chaos that keeps Taipei continually interesting, constantly changing.
Over the past decade, the government has been busy improving the quality of life for Taipei’s 2.6 million residents. It has expanded the metro system, cleaned up the streets, and built more than 220km of bike paths to promote cycling. The EasyCard, previously reserved for buses and subways, was rolled out this year for taxis and retailers including 7-Eleven and Muji, making Taipei as cashless as Hong Kong. It’s simply easy to do things here, and it feels like the city’s a partner rather than an obstacle to better living.
At the same time, there’s still a sense of disarray and a charming old-worldness that keeps Taipei from being too orderly. Scooters frequently and flagrantly drive on the pavements and through red lights; chickens await slaughter at the open-air markets; and rubbish trucks blast Für Elise from mounted speakers as they roll down the streets. Where else can you find Gucci-clad young women eating oyster-and-garlic noodles on fold-out stools by the roadside, sharing a table with war veterans in pyjamas and flip-flops? Or sit for hours with a fishing pole by an indoor pool, “shrimping” for dinner that you’ll grill yourself?
Perhaps this mix of order and disorder has helped to drive Taipei’s art scene, giving the creativity room to grow but also well-organised outlets for release. As Hong Kong artists note with envy, art and design can be found everywhere in Taipei, from the galleries in the abandoned winery of Huashan Culture Park to long-running festivals such as Art Taipei. The city’s flourishing cafés, especially, are bastions of good design, mixing Japanese and Scandinavian influences in spaces that invite you to linger all day. Many cafés, such as Booday, are outgrowths of existing design companies.
Taipei’s architecture, however, hasn’t kept pace with the creativity seen elsewhere. Taipei 101 has long towered over the city’s admittedly bland contemporary offerings but some small changes are in the works. Rem Koolhaas’ OMA won a proposal to build the Taipei Performing Arts Center near the crowded Shilin night market, and further south-east, the sprawling Taipei Pop Music Center is also being planned by New York-based Reiser + Umemoto.
The cost of living remains cheap compared to other capital cities, and property prices have stayed stable. Ironically this has led to a frantic pace of building in the Xinyi and Neihu districts and Dazhi in Zhongshan district as the city expands ever eastward and northward to accommodate the influx of buyers.
As part of this movement, new neighbourhoods are being discovered, or rediscovered. The leafy, tree-lined streets of Minsheng Community, near Songshan airport, has attracted advertising agencies and cafés such as Daughter’s. Taipei’s old Wanhua district, whose teashops and kitschy snake-soup sellers have long been neglected by the fashionable set, is back in vogue again because of the hit movie Monga. The story of gangsters in 1980s Wanhua, which made more money on its opening day here than Avatar, has revived interest in the Qing Dynasty-era Bopiliao Street and Chinese herb sellers of Herbal Lane.
But despite it all, it’s still the little things that make Taipei such a great place to live. Fried-shrimp rolls and Taiwanese rice dishes at A-Cai’s shop, surrounded by 1950s and 60s posters and echoing with old Taiwanese music. Taking the subway for 20 minutes to soak in hot springs at Beitou. Reading a book in the middle of the night at the 24-hour Eslite bookstore.
There is a warmth and accessibility in this city that turns neighbours into extended family members and strangers into friends. Ask a man on the street for directions and he may very well flag down a passing scooter, argue forcefully about the best route, then lead you there himself. “But isn’t that the way it is everywhere?” asks a friend, wonderingly.
For five years, Taipei was mostly known as the home of the world’s tallest building. Thankfully, Dubai now claims that title, and people can go back to appreciating Taipei for what it really is: genuine, bustling, and beautifully understated.