Taipei for Distracted Beginners

It’s bad form to draw generalizations about a place and a people from a tiny little sample of experience. And my sample last week in Taipei, Taiwan, was particularly tiny: first, I was there for an IETF meeting which kept me inside the convention center for most of the week, which resembled nothing so much as every convention center I’ve ever been in. And the times I wasn’t kept in the convention center by work, I was kept inside otherwise by a persistent rain that wasn’t so much rain as simply dampness-as-atmosphere: I literally saw the sun for only fifteen minutes the entire week, and that while it was between the horizon and the cloud deck one morning. I stayed in bed.

That said, here are a few notes on observations that came to mind while I was there.

“The Taiwanese are Friendly." Read this in the Lonely Planet. Agree. Okay, I didn’t meet that many Taiwanese that I wasn’t trying to buy something from or to convince to drive me somewhere, but those I did met the description. It’s actually the only place I can remember being as a tourist that random people coming up to me on the street or the subway never tripped my “this guy’s working an angle” detector.

The reality of nationhood defines a nation. Seriously. Cross-strait relations are complex enough that I feel like I’d have to do diploma work in international affairs on the subject before I could speak intelligently on them, but this point seems pretty straightforward. Following my belief in results, not ideology, it is very hard to stand in Beijing, then to stand in Taipei, and to take anyone who insists that Taiwan is part of China at all seriously. The Republic of China has effective control of its borders and appears to provide all the services of a government. The civil society and economy also seem distinctly Taiwanese. If it waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck, and has webbed feet like a duck, it might be a duck. China’s claim to Taiwan is exactly as silly as Taiwan’s (longstanding official but practically forgotten) claim to China.

Taiwan insists on its existence. Taiwan is understandably a bit defensive and twitchy about this, given that it’s officially an almost-unrecognized state (due to diplomatic coercion by the PRC) and lives under an openly-advertised military threat that seems even more pointless for having spent a week on each side of the divide. Taiwan is proud of its history, and perceived status as successor state to imperial China under the Qing – dates in Taiwan are even given as years of the “Republican dynasty”, if you will, founded in 1912 by Sun Yat-sen. Much of the National Palace Museum1 seems devoted to or at least deeply influenced by this viewpoint: there’s a treaty room containing the ROC’s diplomatic archive, going back to Unequal Treaties signed by the Qing emperors. This room also contains a wall listing the 120 or so countries that de-facto recognize citizens of the ROC by issuing visas or landing permit waivers to them.

Globalization cuts both ways. This is probably colored by the fact that I spent a lot of time in Xinyi, which seems to be the finance-district-and-upscale-malls part of town. But the malls — and there were a lot of malls, basically nothing but malls — seemed to be largely full of Western imports: Swiss watches, Belgian chocolates, Italian suits, American-designed iPhones. Taiwanese with money seem to want to spend it on the same junk we do.

Taipei borrows my favorite bit of urban design from Bern. Bern? Well, the sidewalks in much of the city are covered by the first (American: second) story of the buildings, which is both useful in a rainy place and reminiscent of the Berner Altstadt (also a rainy place).

China minus central planning looks a bit like Los Angeles2 with scooters. Facetious, maybe, but a hard impression to shake. Again probably colored by my stay in Xinyi. I’ve already mentioned the malls full of pricey European crap. Add the wide streets, the tall buildings, the hills and mountains in the near distance, the endlessly-under-construction metro, the ocean-moderated climate, and the fact that almost everyone seems to get around in something personal and motorized, be it car or scooter, and the LA impression holds more true.

Did I mention the scooters? Scooters themselves aren’t that loud, but multiplied by several hundred and I was woken up every morning by the drag-strip sound of rush hour out my 12th3 floor window.

All in all, enlightening. Next time I’ll have to see more than the square mile around Taipei 101.

1The museum’s history itself is interesting – founded in 1925 in Beijing, it evacuated its collection in 1933 ahead of a the advancing Japanese army, and moved eventually to Taiwan in 1948 as the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists intensified. It’s got the largest collection of Chinese art in the world, in large part because it escaped the Cultural Revolution. But that’s another story.

2I’ve actually spent very little time in Los Angeles. Glendale and Burbank, sure. So when I talk about Los Angeles, I’m talking about my impression of Los Angeles, which may or may not reflect its reality. I can however say with all honesty that in my experience, the air’s much, much better in Taipei, and the metro quite a bit more useful.

3My room was on a floor labeled the 15th, but the building lacked a 4th, 13th, or 14th floor for reasons of good luck.

Brian Trammell
Brian Trammell
Scientist, Synthesist, Cyclist, SRE