Taipei. A Portrait.
Unfortunately, I was out sick for much of this past week with limited time for research. Instead of playing hooky, I opted for a creative piece about one of my favorite cities.
Back to crypto programming next week. Hope you enjoy.
One of the first things I noticed was the fashion. Lose-fitting, can’t-be-bothered, either decidedly retro or 2040 type vibes. I still can’t decide.
One man passes in a hoody reading “sloth”. Another with maroon socks, baggy capris, and unkempt hair. “Who cares” splashed across the third. Kurt Cobain-esk over-garments. A sort of grunge meets hip-hop meets Old Navy.
Much more Berkeley meets Seoul. Much less LA / Shanghai sheik. Tight v-necks are harder to find than khaki pants inside a Miami club. 80% post-modern grunge, ~10% dad, ~10% more overtly edgy. Edgy in the decidedly Japanese, laced-up black boots, black leggings, neck tats, ripping-cigs-on-the-corner, don’t-f*cking-talk-to-me kind of edgy. Still, the east Asian premium on all things “cutesy” is alive and well; still dominant despite the creeping displays of self-expression.
Not just attire though. ‘90s everything.
The neon street signs. The reams of paper forms to open a bank account. The foldable laminated-page menus with paper cut-outs slid inside. The graffiti. The endless receipts. Corporate mobile apps from the Jurassic era. The ubiquitous “use-the-claw-to-win-a-stuffed-animal” retail outlets which never have a single customer and are 130% used for money laundering.
In many ways, Taipei appears frozen in time; to have missed the digital revolution and the glitzy skyscraper boom dotting Asian cities from Shenzhen to Jakarta, hallmarks of the region’s rise over the last two decades. Admittedly, this also drives much of the city’s allure, affordability and quality of life. Taipei is more… livable.
I have often found an inverse correlation between the width of the streets and the charm of a city. Taipei is marked by condensed living with few skyscrapers, narrow alleyways lined with food stalls jutting out beneath tired, graffiti-covered four story apartments. A pleasant contrast to the wide, communist-era boulevards which papered over them in many parts of Beijing.
It’s both a bit depressing - this lack of dynamism - and yet, endearing. A former tier one global city, who, in many facets, has passed the baton to younger, more vigorous neighbors. And yet, is perfectly content. Thriving in its own, middle-aged Keanu Reeves kind of way.
With the siren song of Silicon Valley or Shenzhen or even Singapore poaching much of Taiwan’s millennial talent and capital offshore with the promise of larger markets, Taipei has forged a different path. A business landscape bereft of internet giants, replaced by unbranded SME retailers and stodgy, ossifying corporates juxtaposed against its world-leading expertise in less sexy, but essential high-end hardware supply-chains.
The pace of life is materially slower as well. Gyms and restaurants open at ~9am. Uncles congregate over green tea at the local café by 5pm. The fast-walking, suit-wearing “eat-sh*t-and-die”-looking automatons of New York and Hong Kong, replaced by actual people.
Every night at 7:30pm, the garbage truck pulls up at my apartment’s intersection, announcing its arrival playing Beethoven’s Für Elise. My neighbors and I dutifully congregate, passing along our pleasantries as we recycle our cans in this nightly ritual.
Today, Taipei feels less like the roaring heart of an Asian Tiger and much more like a communal village. A village within a city within a mountain range on an island. A hidden gem.
However, this nostalgic nineties façade is just the external enclosure to something much more elaborate. A cocktail of Chinese heritage, colonial-era Japanese influence, and a palpably more progressive, liberal outlook than many parts of Asia. This cultural collage is noticeable in many facets of day-to-day life.
Sports is one.
Locals cannot seem to decide if basketball is their favorite sport like the mainland? Or perhaps baseball like Japan? Or perhaps elite eSports held on the exclusive “Korean server”?
Transport is another.
Taipei, like Vietnam today or China in decades past, is lined with scooters. Traffic consists not of gridlocked SUVs but a lively river of agile motorbikes. In Taiwan, there are ~15m scooters vs. a population of ~23m; essentially a scooter for every able-bodied adult. In contrast to Vietnam’s more blue-collar drivers, it’s not uncommon to see suits or button-downs zooming towards a long-day at a Taiwanese corporate; rumored to be as grueling as their Japanese and mainland counterparts.
Below ground, Taipei is one of few places where silence on the metro rivals Tokyo. The deafening courteousness seems at odds with the other colorful displays of individualism. The sleeveless hoodies, earrings, tattoos and TikTok-haired teens cluster next to a middle-aged man sporting a subtle “my penis is bigger than yours” T-shirt. Perfectly silent. Not Japanese. Not the mainland. Not American. Something else. A unique blend.
The food as well.
The color and spice of Chinese cuisine married to exacting Japanese standards - again, a legacy of the colonial era and proximity. Zongzi, Danbing, Guabao, Huoguo, Sushi, and, especially, the famous niu rou mian (braised beef noodles) are all mouth-watering. Walk up to any street vendor in Taipei and there is a baseline quality; a respect for the craft reminiscent of Tokyo. Both cultural and competitive forces which assure the customer of top decile experience globally. Japanese, Local. Mexican. Western. Thai. It’s not important. Any establishment serving subpar dishes will be out of business in days.
However, Taipei is much less exacting in other areas. The service quality is high during face-to-face encounters, but foot-soldier agency is often stifled by bureaucracy. The public gym equipment collects dust. The leak in the Taipei Main Station’s bathroom ceiling solved with a bucket. The city’s pipes are so old, the water is borderline undrinkable. The monthly “inspections” to my apartment’s water tower a bitter reminder parts of Taipei’s infrastructure are descending towards developing world status.
Not everything about Taipei is ‘90s. Much of the city’s apartments appear constructed in the post-occupational period of the ‘50s - ‘80s. Many are in dire need of maintenance. “Maintenance” should potentially be replaced by “wrecking ball”. A peep into the second floor windows reveal cluttered rooms hosting elderly uncles who haven’t left in 40+ years. Many are in desperate need of a garage sale; the ubiquitous Chinese dramas with the big-haired concubines running on endless loops on the background. The youths complain about the astronomical real estate prices which, like San Francisco, stem from a combination of nimbyism and regulatory barriers to new construction.
The architectural decline stands in stark contrast to the ever-expanding skyline across the strait or the instantaneous allergic reaction to any semblance of decay by their neighbors to the north. Sure, it adds to the 90s punk aesthetic we (I) love so much, but at some point, it’s just a bit… sad.
This slow degradation in physical infrastructure sits at striking odds with Taiwan’s local engineering talent. Talent sourced largely from local universities funneled into the likes of TSMC - the world’s undisputed leader in cutting-edge semiconductor fabrication. Like the U.S., its almost as if Taiwan has moved up the technology value-chain so quickly, it no longer remembers how to perform basic operations further down the stack.
The disconnect between Taipei’s feel as an intimate city and its nation’s systemic role in the global semiconductor supply-chain and as the new stage for 21st century geopolitical tensions, make for an odd tension. A small island constantly dragged back into the global limelight against it’s will.
Interestingly, the outside world appears much more excitable than the Taiwanese themselves.
As Pelosi’s “SPAR19” flight touched down in Taipei, I was out grabbing dinner on the banks of the Tamsui in the city’s west. With social media ablaze, Washington and Beijing saber rattling, and my mom texting me to leave, the scene in Taipei could just as easily been a warm summer evening in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Shipping containers converted into restaurant stalls. Christmas lights hung overhead. Breeze sweeping in off the river. Live music. The shadows of the mountains which surround the city barely visible against the night sky.
Two Taiwanese Ed Sheeran’s in front, melting the hearts of teenage girls who plead for the latest Korean pop songs. The teenage cohort an interesting blend of innocence - giggling admiration and a plethora of selfies - and maturity - chilling at a craft beer venue appreciating local artists like 30 year old’s in San Francisco.
The one thing no one seemed to care about was SPAR19.
I guess after 70 years of looming conflict, local residents have become desensitized. To simply tune out the noise and live. Probably the only way to stay sane really.
This isn’t to say locals are agnostic. In my conversations with members across the country - from my tutor in Taipei, to cab drivers in Chiayi, to our minsu hosts in Hua Lian - a varied set of perspectives emerged. Perspectives steeped in Taiwan’s chaotic history over the last century.
A (massively over-simplified) history lesson for the unfamiliar:
Taiwan was a colony of Imperial Japan for much of the first half of the 20th century before Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945 at the end of WWII. Taiwan was then returned to China who, after the fall of Japan, immediately resumed its internal civil war pitting the communists led by Mao vs. the Kuomingtang (KMT) nationalists led by Chang Kai-shek.
In 1949, the nationalists were forced to retreat to Taiwan and construct a competing government (the Republic of China) to the People’s Republic of China established on the mainland by the communists. In the following decades, the two drifted apart. The mainland struggled under Mao’s chaotic policies of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, while Taiwan received substantial investment and support from the U.S. and more sound economic policies, accelerating economic growth in the 60s and 70s. In what likely inspired Washington’s (incorrect) hopes for China in the 21st century, this economic growth paved the way to political reforms, culminating in a multi-party democratic transition in the early 90s.
(Back to the narrative…)
Today, after 30+ years of democratic politics, many in the younger generation have unsurprisingly become acclimatized to life with more individual freedoms. Freedom of speech. Freedom of assembly. The right to vote. Pro-human rights and progressive LBTQ views. This gradual embrace of liberal values over time, puts Taiwan’s political trajectory at increasing odds with the People’s Republic. Many locals will quietly and not so quietly voice concern with the more autocratic shift in Beijing in recent years.
On the other hand, there is also a deep appreciation for the island’s Chinese heritage. Many - particularly in the older generation - have close ties to the mainland. There is also a strong dose of economic and political realism. China is the dominant market in Asia on a trajectory to become the undisputed global leader - next-door, sharing a common culture and language.
Incrementally, despite a growing liberal streak amongst the youth, the majority are quite practical. Any conflict between the island of ~23m vs. a global superpower of ~1.4b does not lend itself to many rosy outcomes for the former. The locals, not oblivious to this, are largely against any provocations of Beijing. For most, the optimal path forward is a continuation of the current, blurry, but most importantly peaceful, status quo to which they have grown accustomed.
Aside from it’s U.S. ties, the other often underrated factor in deterrence of Beijing is geography.
The coastline of Taiwan is as close to paradise as possible this side of the River Styx. Unless, of course, the goal is an amphibious assault across the strait in which case the rocky coastline and high mountain ranges covered in dense green forest start to look… much less heavenly.
Taiwan is like a tropical Switzerland surrounded by water. A topography most similar to Rio or Hongkong, but with higher mountains, more coastline, and cleaner water. From the coast to Taipei, one must drive another hour inland into a valley… surrounded by yet another range of densely covered mountains… hosting a compact city… with old, narrow streets. An absolute nightmare for any would be occupier.
From an nature-lovers perspective, however, Taipei is the polar opposite.
Picturesque hiking trails descend into the city itself. Where city stops and the trail begins is often amorphous. Same goes for the city’s surrounding mountain biking trails and rock climbing venues with are world renown. Gondola’s provide the less ambitious access to the small towns and tea farms perched in the mountains over looking the city. At night, Taipei 101 glows, peacocking commandingly against a city scape with few other mega skyscrapers.
Looking down from Elephant mountain back at the city, one is struck by a sense of majesty, and yet a creeping anxiety. Will my kids experience this?
The next few chapters in Taipei’s complicated history will be the most pivotal yet.
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