Sunday, May 27, 2012

Watching Zhubei

Sheraton Zhubei

In this somewhat meaningless post, I shall admit something:

I am weirdly fascinated with Zhubei (竹北), the small but increasingly shiny city in Xinzhu (新竹) county.

I'm not sure if it's because I know so many people who live there - a lot of my students, that is - or because it's just interesting to see a city go through a noticeable physical transformation over the course of just a few years, or because I have to drive through it so often, or what. I don't know, it's just a place that has caught my attention.

You might know it as the city where the Xinzhu (or Hsinchu, but I like Pinyin) HSR station is located. I know it as the city I have to pass through at least once a week, often more, on my way to the Hsinchu Science Park or, more rarely, Hukou Industrial Park. Occasionally, I teach seminars in Zhubei itself and at one point was hanging out there, at loose ends, for the better part of a day because I had a morning seminar in a building near the Sheraton, a set of late afternoon classes at the Science Park and nothing to do in between.

In the years I've done this job and commuted fairly regularly to Hsinchu, Taiwan's tech industry powerhouse, I've seen Zhubei go from being a dull, slightly weedy, city-in-between that boasted the HSR station, a few office buildings, a cluster of old traditional farmhouses and the Sheraton, and that's about it, to being a city that one might actually want to live in (as opposed to "choose to live in", which is what a lot of people in the science park do - it's not so much that they want to live there as they choose to live there, because it's convenient enough and got enough transportation links, and raising a family there wouldn't be quite as boring as being single there).

Every few months I'll cruise through in yet another taxi - some of the drivers actually know me at this point, which is impressive considering how many taxis line up regularly at the HSR station - and see another weedy lot gone, another building going up, another at completion that had been a weedy lot just a few years back.

Zhubei used to have a few of those weird-looking apartment building showcase buildings: I couldn't find a photo of one online, but anyone who lives in urban or semi-urban Taiwan knows what I'm talking about: weird one-story buildings with asymmetrical construction, funky roofs, odd lighting elements, ultramodern finishes and lines, occasionally weird globular or angular elements, that you look at and wonder "what's that for?" - too small to be a place to live, too small to be a wedding venue, too big for most stores (and too fancy to be one of the larger stores). Before I figured out what they were I thought Zhubei just had an overabundance of semi-talented, half-baked architects who kept designing weird buildings. Turns out they're places you can go to look at showcase apartments you can buy in the building that will eventually go up on that site. Or so I'm told.

Right now Zhubei seems to have more of them than they have cockroaches. This fascinates me - Taipei is built up enough that we don't get many of them, and when I ride through Zhubei I can't help but compare them.



I can't write this post without mentioning Titty Tea - when I first started working in the science park I'd pass this place in a taxi and for the longest time I thought it was run by locals who had no idea what the name meant. Once I rented a car with friends, and we were headed through on the way to the Pasta'ai festival, and I got my friend to stop so I could take a photo. Only later, when I had some free time in Zhubei and I actually went there, did I realize it was either foreigner-run or foreigner-staffed, and the name was chosen entirely on purpose. Also, wifi, good brownies, decent food and Belgian beer. You should check it out. If I lived in Zhubei I'd probably hang out here a lot...partly because they've got some good stuff, and partly because there doesn't seem to be anything else to do in Zhubei except possibly get a drink at the Sheraton bar (I assume there's a bar, since the hotel clearly exists for science and technology business types in town to visit TSMC or something, rather like the Holiday Inn Shenkeng exists for Chinese tourists whose tour packages have them staying out of town) or check out those old houses.

I'm also interested to see Zhubei continue to grow from weedy lots and a few weird buildings to a place crawling with science park types, and the associated high-end living spaces that go along with having a relatively well-paid professional population. What I haven't seen yet, and am waiting for, are obvious the next wave for Zhubei: restaurants, cafes, a few restaurant-bars, shops. There are a few, but certainly not enough to make it a terribly interesting place to live. Most people I know who live there - and working in the science park as much as I do, I know quite a few people who do live there - spend their weekends driving somewhere else: Hsinchu city (apparently there's this re-opened huge department store called Big City down there), Taipei, some rural area conducive to day trips or wherever their parents live.

As of now, the Zhubei living experience can be summed up by one of my students:

Him: "Last weekend we decided to find a good place to eat in Zhubei. We didn't want to go all the way to Hsinchu or Taipei."

Other student: "Did you find one?"

Him: "No."



Me: "So what did you do?"

Him: "Well, on Saturday night we decided that Wang Steak was too crowded, so we went to a Japanese seafood restaurant. It was terrible. We wanted to try again on Sunday so we found another place, but it was also not very good."



Other student: "Is Wang Steak the only good place to eat in Zhubei?"

Him: "I think so, yes."


He might not be completely correct, but he's got a point: there are a lot of people with a fair amount of money kicking around Zhubei, and more than a few are either single and well-paid, DINKS, or dual-income families with kids that they can afford to spoil a little bit, and not a lot of them to do in the city where they live. More has got to be coming to cater to these people, because that's how economics works.

And I'll be excited to see it happen. I don't think I'll ever live in Zhubei - most of my work is still in Taipei, I get paid well to go down there so there's no need to relocate, and I still enjoy all that Taipei has to offer. I wouldn't want to live without lots of cool coffeehouses to choose from, the hidden old buildings and streets in the western part of the city, public transportation, various amenities that I don't always take advantage of but enjoy having around (like City Super's cheese selection), museums (which I do visit regularly enough to make this an important thing) and accessibility of hikes and the coast by bus.




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