Report from renegade province

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.

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12 Responses to Report from renegade province

  1. Lois Beluga says:

    Hope you had a nice haircut! Some of the places even cut hair.

    Taiwan: how China would look if it were run by Corporate gangs instead of by Communist gangs.

    Much the same but more motorbikes.

  2. Real Tax Payer says:

    On my occasional trips to Taiwan, apart from the skimpily-dressed betel nut girls I have always been struck most of all as to how tatty things are : tatty buildings, tatty offices, tatty mopeds, tatty pavements (complete with broken flagstones and weeds). And when I took a morning walk up the mountain road behind the hotel, the tatty litter ( thousands of discarded betel nut packets )

    Strange place….

    Mind you. one sees some strange and tatty things in China , but perhaps I’m more used to seeing such things there, and in truth China’s tattiness does get less by the year

    But Taiwan’s tattiness seems to live forever, like Philippine poverty

  3. Stephen says:

    Isn’t it more correct that we call it ‘Chinese Taipei’ lest we hurt the feelings of the Chinese People?

    Have the CCP realised yet that by buggering up HK’s supposed 2 systems Taiwan’s de facto independence (63 years and counting) is now permanent ?

  4. Real Fax Paper says:

    I cannot fully describe the horror of the Hello Kitty Jet. Adults fighting each other to get into the toilets before pushback just to make sure they secure some of the Hello Kitty toilet paper before it’s all gone. Adults pocketing the Hello Kitty plastic cutlery, and then asking for replacements. Taking the Hello Kitty themed safety card (it has Kitty’s ears). Ditto the paper headrest cover. I reckon the TVs’d be gone too if they weren’t so firmly bolted on, as they play a Hello Kitty cartoon in an endless loop before takeoff.

    Mind you, I am probably the greater idiot – six times in a row before I figured out it was not random, but the same two HK-Taipei return flights. BR857 & BR858. Avoid at all costs.

  5. Maugrim says:

    Ditto, my idea of hell is being enconsed in economy on a Hello Kitty themed anything with a tour group. Hemmers, no mention of the character traits that Taiwanese seem to be developing in terms of boorishness, eg DYKWIA (do you know who I am) type stuff with airlines, the behaviour of bratty kids etc.

  6. Big Al says:

    I, too, have just returned from a sojurn in Taipei and found it okay. The staff in the hotel (just down the road from Taipei Main Station) were as helpful as could be – and a couple of them could be classed as “babes”. Didn’t notice how tatty it was … bit then I live on Kowloon side, not in the rarefied enclaves on Hong Kong side. However, I have to agree that it was cheap, cheap, cheap. And I’m not talking about the caged birds. Looks like I need to return (hopefully on the Hello Kitty ‘plane, just for the hell of it) to find all the tat and revel in it. By the way, Hong Kong has a similar haircutting outfit – the Japanese QB House – but it costs $50 for a cut ($50 note or Octopus only via vending machine). However it does have a funky “traffic light” outside telling you how long you’ll have to wait: “green” = long, long wait; “amber” = really long, long wait; and “red” = come back tomorrow.

  7. RSG says:

    Mainlanders visit Taiwan and are surprised that its not gleaming and modern looking. In fact, Taipei looks quite a bit like the older parts of Guangzhou, minus the swooping overhead highways and giant masses of concrete. If you travel from Taipei to Kaohsiung via train, you can see that most of the countryside looks like a lot of Guangdong, except a bit cleaner.

    I like Taipei but the place could seriously use a facelift.

  8. EDB says:

    RTP: ‘…. and in truth China’s tattiness does get less by the year’

    Haha, good one. I thought you were serious for a minute there 🙂

  9. Real Fax Paper says:

    Eh, Maugrim, I think that’s a tad unfair. I find that Taiwan, on the whole, is a very nice place to be precisely because of the people. There seems to be a general fondness for the place in these comments, too, and since the consensus is that the hardware is tatty, it must be the software that makes the difference.

    The highest concentrations of boorishness and DYKWIA are often mainly to be found in the check-in queue of HK-bound flights (if you can see past me sobbing, curled up on the ground, a Hello Kitty boarding pass clenched in my bloodless fist)

  10. PropertyDeveloper says:

    In a culture where new = good, old = bad, there is considerable shame in buying 2nd hand goods; and property, of course, remains theoretically “new” for decades so long as nobody actually ives there.

    People like shiny facades, perform little maintenance, and just throw things away or give them to the maid after a while. Kowloon, NT, Taiwan or the older bits of China: the grout weeps, the paint streaks, the wood rots, the buildings crumble, and soon the nouveau riche move onto the next trendy place. There are only so many gleaming palaces today because of the unsustainable boom.

  11. FOARP says:

    TPE always brings a smile to my face but up in the mountains is the best part of Taiwan – spend a weekend at the Grand Formosa Taroko, go down to the open-air natural hotsprings at the bottom of the gorge and look up at sheer cliffsides, parrots, and monkeys – the way I imagined living in the far east as a kid.

    Otherwise: Tainan, Taidong, and Yilan in that order.

  12. PCC says:

    I like Taiwan, mainly for its people, but I also admire their more-normal lifestyle of leaving the office at a reasonable hour to return to their non-high rise flats of 1,500 square feet or larger.

    The food is good, the girls are friendly (I like that charming earthiness that is their trademark).

    I also like the fact that, for the most part, Taiwanese people couldn’t care less about Hong Kong or Hong Kong people; they like their home the way it is and don’t have a burning desire to live anyplace else, least of all Hong Kong. That must drive HKers crazy!

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