The biennial inspection visit to the mess of mopeds, pineapple cakes and overhead telephone wires that is Taipei proves a success. There was a time when Taiwan seemed expensive, but not these days. A quick haircut comes to HK$27 (paid for via a vending machine outside the shop – appropriately next to a McDonalds). The orange-uniformed hairdresser sucks loose hairs off you with a vacuum tube afterwards, then dabs scented powder on your face. A stunning Wanhua night-market meal of non-oily beef noodles, dumplings, sublime not-very-hot-and-sour soup and pickled veg and tofu plus beer at barely HK$50 a head. A bus ride to Keelung costs half the fare from Sheung Wan to Shenzhen Bay.
Buildings don’t cost much either, judging by the worse-than-the-Mainland quality of some of the architecture. The traditional explanation of Taiwan’s urban seediness is that the Kuomintang regime ignored hardware for decades on the assumption that they would be going back to Beijing one day. It’s an excuse that’s growing a bit thin.
And then there is all the free entertainment that belies the physical ugliness – or at least charmlessness – of the city. A woman squatting outside her front door feeding seeds to a caged bird with chopsticks. The girl with large fairy wings swooping up to me to put a ‘paid for’ sticker on my bottle of water as I enter Carrefour supermarket. The startlingly no-nonsense English subtitle added to a local edition of Catcher in the Rye in Eslite bookstore. The well-lit dentist’s you can see right into from the sidewalk through very skimpy lace curtains – a one-way viewing system after nightfall. Some people might think that watching a stranger having his teeth drilled just feet away through a window is virtually as creepy as taking photos up women’s skirts on trains. Others might appreciate the compelling fascination. I could have gawped all evening.
At the airport I tried my luck with an earlier flight. The girl at the check-in looked slightly alarmed when I asked if I could get the 4pm instead of the 6pm. She hesitated and checked the computer. Then she bit her lip and glanced at me anxiously. I thought she was going to demand a rebooking fee. But no.
“We have space on the 4pm flight,” she said. “But… but you will not be able to have the Hello Kitty boarding card.” She looked utterly distraught. I tried my best to look grief-stricken. In the line heading towards immigration, I passed the pink-and-chrome Hello Kitty check-in counter. Before take-off, peering from the all-economy flight’s business-class cabin, I saw the Hello Kitty A330 itself on the apron. It was a lost opportunity that made my trip complete.