Showing posts with label urban_planning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label urban_planning. Show all posts

Sunday, November 17, 2019

A half-day wander in the Beitou backstreets


At some point in the past few weeks, I ended up with something called a "Bakers cyst" (discovered by a guy named Baker), which is a fluid cyst that develops when there's too much strain on the knee. Whether it was my trip to Europe - and all the stairs and cobblestones - or going to the gym too much, I have no idea.

In any case, that means minimal stairs, lots of rest and no hiking for awhile. Instead, to get a little easy exercise and enjoy the beautiful weather this weekend, a friend and I headed up to Beitou to check out some of its older architecture. Not Xinbeitou with its glorious Japanese-era pavilions, temples and buildings, but the flat area of Beitou which has no hills that could pose a challenge to my knee.

Beitou doesn't have a wealth of exciting old buildings to see, but its backstreets are pleasantly old-school in a way that reminds me of the quieter parts of Tainan city. There are, however, a few things worth taking a look at if you're in the neighborhood.


We started out walking towards the Lady Zhou memorial arch, built in the 19th century by local officials to honor Lady Zhou, whose husband died young and who apparently "kept her chastity intact" while taking care of her late husband's parents and raising their children. While I'm not on board with this particular kind of morality, the arch itself is interesting an in an atmospheric little lane next to a quirky temple.

Lady Zhou Memorial Gate (周氏節孝坊) is easy to find on Google Maps.


The lane is pleasant enough that you might feel inclined to relax on one of the stone pylons meant to stop cars from driving under the arch, or sit on the inviting benches of the temple. The temple itself is small and features a variety of scenes from folk stories painted on the bathroom-tile walls.



The houses in this lane are worth your notice as well, although they are not as immediately eye-catching as the baroque shophouses on Taiwan's old streets. Lovely details such as attractively painted window screens, unique bannisters on balconies, plants that give the lane some leafy atmosphere and generally just a quiet neighborhood feel make this area very pleasant. Being extremely close to the MRT, this is the sort of place I'd love to buy someday and renovate with original features intact. Sadly, though these sorts of homes look normal, they're extremely expensive now, well out of my budget (especially considering the sorts of renovations I'd want to do to make the home modern and comfortable but period-appropriate).


Then we went looking for a few more old houses that were said to still exist on Datong Street nearby. What we found instead was a kind of neighborhood junkyard, and the locals there informed us that the buildings had been torn down some time ago. There was one left in bad condition off to the side, but was basically just a backdrop to heaps of junk at that point. It's a shame, as Beitou could probably bring in more visitors - the kind who are actually interested in local history - if it kept and maintained these sorts of buildings.

Next door, we came across an old temple not on our list, the Chen Family Ancestral Hall (陳氏祠堂, also findable on Google Maps), across the street from the adorable-looking Slipper Cafe. The hall itself is fronted by an attractive old gate, but then you have to pass through a shaded car park. The ancestral worship areas are at the back, behind a locked gate which is surrounded by piles of junk, and near the car park is a place to eat that has a sign extolling the importance of protecting the environment.

Someone from the Chen family, or perhaps just a local uncle hanging out, let us in. The tablets themselves are backed by a pretty cool hand-painted dragon - yes, we asked permission before photographing it. 


There are also some lovely old paintings on wooden sideboards and an atmospherically neglected shrine to the right.

It's not a place to go out of your way to visit by any means, but it makes for a pleasant stop on a relaxed city walking day if you happen to pass by. Which, to be honest, is the case with most temples, shrines and ancestral halls.



We then walked up to Beitou Market, which is a bit loud and disorganized but has a few places to eat and at least one tea vendor selling lemon pineapple tea with chunks of pineapple (which was far too sweet but also delicious). There's also a guy selling Oreo and Rocher wheel cakes. Near the market, on Guangming Road very close to the MRT (you can see the station down the road) you'll also pass a few old shophouses from what I guess was once the main market street, which have been taken over by a Cosmed. 


On one hand, I'm happy that these old structures are continuing to be used (and not necessarily turned into yet another tacky tourist shop, not that tourists come to this part of Beitou, as they usually head up the mountain instead). On the other, that is one hell of an ugly sign. 


Near Beitou Market is the Beitou Presbyterian Church (長老教會北投教堂), built in 1912 and designed by William Gauld. It's the only surviving 20th-century church designed by Gauld, and its congregation was initially mostly local plains indigenous. It has brick and cement buttresses to protect against earthquakes, but there's no easy way to get in if it's closed (the gate, however, seems to be left open most of the time so you can walk right up to it). 


One thing we missed was the old Beitou Granary on Datong Street, not far from the Chen Family Ancestral Hall, simply because I hadn't known it was there until I researched our route a little bit after our walk. Built in the 1930s, it was (as you might guess) a grain distribution center during the Japanese era. Apparently the original wooden roof and the old rice mill are still extant. I guess I'll have to return to check it out.

We then set out for one of the last remaining two-story traditional houses in Taipei, which is down a lane off Qingjiang Road (I believe Lane 113).

The lanes in this area are highly atmospheric and worth a walk on their own, before you get to a dirt path through a small urban farm, past a few old brick houses - some in very poor condition - and one that is still lived in. The main road itself is a bit more hectic but I did appreciate the creepy mannequins in one store.



In this area you can see a lot of structures that were clearly once Japanese-era shophouses but which have been tiled over. While the tile is ugly, I'm happy the structures have survived. I do hope someday the aesthetic trend of removing tiles and refurbishing original exteriors will become more popular (the equivalent of tearing up '80s shag carpet to find hardwood floors underneath).


They do have a cute dog though.




Unfortunately, the house itself was not accessible. There was no clear way in, and the path was blocked by another old house with a guardrail around it that was clearly intended to keep trespassers off. This is a section of wall from the outside. At least the slightly overgrown garden area made the whole place very atmospheric in the late afternoon. 


As with many traditional Taiwanese houses, it's hard to see what the main house looks like from the road. We're clearly not the first wanderers who've tried to get in, but this person was obviously more successful. Here's what we missed:

Screen Shot 2019-11-17 at 12.01.24 PM

To be honest, after finding this house, we got a little lost, though we never went too far from the MRT. I couldn't really tell you where I took these photos, except to say that they're so close to the MRT that you could hear the signals of the train doors closing, and there's at least one place (closed when we came by) that appears to be a cafe/bookstore/place where hipsters hang out.

Don't worry though, that whole area is atmospheric and if you wander enough, you're sure to come across it.

I especially enjoyed running into the cat, and the mosaic bird detail on some random person's adorable house.

Again, totally the sort of house I'd like to buy and renovate to keep touches like that intact while turning it into a comfortable living space. I have small dreams - I never wanted a mansion - but in my generation, to even do this one needs to be loaded, and it's still a shame that I'm not rich. 





Monday, September 22, 2014

Confucius and the Department Store

 photo DSC05353.jpg

It just so happens that I wrote this while listening to this.

Two weeks ago, a confluence of things happened.

First, I planned and executed a Mid-Autumn Festival barbecue near my apartment, which doubled as my birthday party because I knew I wouldn't have the energy, what with Delta Module 3 going on, to hold two parties in one month.

We hadn't noticed the sign that had been posted in our building, as there are a lot of notices and things that are usually irrelevant. So on the day of the party, we were upset to find out that maybe we should have read that notice after all: no barbecuing would be allowed in the main courtyard areas around where we live (which are perfect for barbecuing). The reason was not clear but usually it has to do with "smell and noise".

Two years ago, you could barbecue anywhere in this area. We barbecued in the small courtyard just outside our apartment. Then the next year, that was prohibited and you could only barbecue in the large courtyard further out. This year, they prohibited that too and we were only allowed to barbecue in a small, dark little area down by the wet market, and policemen constantly rode by on bikes making sure we adhered to that rule (this was the first year there was a police presence).

I can't help but feel that it's a slow, systematic attempt to ban barbecuing on Moon Festival in all urban areas, but to do it slowly enough that people don't complain much.

Then, I had a discussion on Facebook with Alexander Synaptic about this fascinating blog post of his about old "entertainment centers" in towns and cities in Taiwan. It's a coincidence, but a telling one, that he entitled it "Dreams of Empire". There's one in Sanchong that functions mostly as a string of pool halls rife with gangsters, and a closed-down one in Zhanghua.

I noted that while until recently, street-level commercial activity and entertainment was mostly-happily tolerated by local residents, and a proliferation of night markets and other "re nao" (fun) spots were allowed to thrive, which has given Taipei, at least, a sort of vibrant street life and sidewalk scene that Beijing and other cities in China are lacking - and which is a part of what makes Taipei a great place to live - that there seems to have been a culture shift.

This happened around the time that Brendan and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary. We had wanted to go to Opa! Greek Taverna, which has hands-down the best Mediterranean food in Taipei (Sababa is good for falafel, but I make better hummus). Turns out their old street-level restaurant near Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall was closed, and they'll be re-opening in ATT 4 Fun at the end of the month.

Those old entertainment halls are now closed, but they're being replaced by glass monstrosities like ATT 4 Fun. Night markets (like Shi-da or Shilin) are being shut down (except for a few boring "fashion" and cell phone cover stores) or the food stalls relocated to indoor areas, which drastically reduces their appeal. Streetscapes are ruined as giant granite obelisks of luxury housing go up, leaving no room for shops or comfortable passage for pedestrians. Trees are torn down as a huge event arena is built - nothing wrong with Taipei Dome but those trees were a part of the street scape and we loved them. Restaurants are relocating to department stores. Street-level storefront rent is skyrocketing and only chain businesses can afford them, so interesting local spots are being crowded out. As ornery residents start complaining - which they didn't seem to do before - everything that was fun in some neighborhoods is either being shut down, or moving and often they end up in ATT 4 Fun or the equivalent.

Rather than go to Chun Shui Tang (which I know has been implicated in the recent gutter oil scandal) in one of their well-decorated branches which create street-level visual interest, I basically have to go to Chun Shui Tang inside Shinkong Mitsukoshi. One of my favorite Indian restaurants, Calcutta Indian Food, moved from a street-level shop on an interesting stretch of Kunming Street to a basement-level restaurant in a somewhat grody building called "U2". All the good places are slowly moving indoors, but the indoor spaces are expanding: walk underground from City Hall MRT through the basement of Hankyu Department Store to Eslite Xinyi, and it's a veritable food festival of eating options. All indoors. In the basement, even. Outdoors, you'd have to walk for awhile to find something decent to eat.

I don't care for this at all - and as a Taipei resident, I do believe that counts for something.

If I wanted to live in a city with dead streets, where you walked between huge edifices, some new and marbled, some old and marbled in a different way, and cars whizzed by on the road, and I had to walk inside some concrete magnate's wet dream just to eat dinner at a restaurant I like, which is no longer within walking distance because they couldn't afford the rent, I would live in Beijing.

I don't live in Beijing, because Beijing sucks. I do not fancy walking a mile along a sidewalk flanked by a wall and a six-lane highway, with one overhead crosswalk every mile, and big empty spaces dotted with steel monoliths that spear the pollution floating overhead, where people hustle in and out of sliding doors into slightly less polluted air conditioned buildings to eat, drink and shop. Beijing is one of the worst models possible for urban planning.

And I don't want Taipei to become just like it.

I feel like all of this is related. There seems to have been a spike in old-school, stick-up-the-butt Confucian values, more influence from China (which has a distinctly different culture from Taiwan, and to Taiwanese or those used to Taiwanese culture can seem a bit stick-up-the-butt although I realize it's not always), and increasingly authoritarian leaders telling the public to basically go screw themselves. To the point where I wonder, as Letters from Taiwan implies, if the recent deaths - I believe that's a plural deaths too - of various high-profile Sunflower activists were, ahem, accidents. It would not surprise me at all if the government, taking its cues from China as it tries to force the Taiwanese to accept the idea of eventual Chinese rule, decided to off them. People complain about noise and smell on the streets, and the city slowly morphs into Beijing's stepsister (I'd say ugly stepsister, but it's hard to get uglier than Beijing).

I feel it's related to the increase in gang activity - White Wolf not only allowed to return to Taiwan but to rub shoulders with Ma Ying-jiu's sisters. A gang fight resulting in the death of an off-duty policeman which raises many questions about what exactly he was involved in (it's fairly well-known that the police let the gangs run the clubs in exchange for kickbacks). The subsequent inevitable closing down of Taipei nightlife (so it can reopen later, under the protection of newly-strong gangs who give the police better kickbacks). I won't even get into what happens if you cross a gangster in a KTV.

Some other gangsters, deeply entwined in real estate development, convince local politicians to ignore laws about having to provide "green space" for every building they erect in exchange for letting those politicians buy units in the buildings before they go on sale. The politicians can later sell those units at substantial markups. This is all perfectly legal. And we allow it, because they are Our Leaders.

We like to think that the heyday of gang violence in Taiwan was the '80s and '90s, but it wasn't. It's as bad now as it was then, only now we have "democratic" leaders acting like dictators telling us they'll do something about it, when clearly they won't. They'll shut down a few nightclubs, but nobody really important will face punishment.

Increasingly authoritarian "leaders" leaning both on the Confucian ideas regarding the masses doing what they say, inextricably intertwined with gang activity, huge corporations and development companies tearing down the city (and quite possibly encouraging "citizen complaints" about noise and smell from restaurants, night markets and even barbecuing, which is a Mid-Autumn festival activity associated mostly with Taiwan) in order to rebuild it in China's image.

I do not think this is deliberate. Nobody is sitting behind a desk going "mwahahahaha, let's make Taipei look more like a Chinese city, so the Taiwanese will accept annexation by China! Bwahahaha! My evil plan!" I know to imply that these events are deliberately connected is only a few steps shy of donning a tinfoil hat. My point is that the mood in Taipei has changed, and not for the better. And that these issues are all effects of that - the slow migration of street life to department stores, the budding New Confucianism in which we are all told to follow the rules, the increase in gang activity, the increasingly authoritarian government that is quietly trying to push Taiwan towards China and a future the majority of people do not want but many feel powerless to stop.

There has been a culture shift, and it's starting to really be felt.

So, to me, they are related even if not intentionally so. The same overly conservative, regulation-loving Neo-Confucian "follow the rules, do as we say" ideas that brought us the tragedy that is the KMT and President Ma have also brought us the steady department store-ification of Taipei. It's a whole culture shift, even if it is not deliberate.

I still think Taipei has gotten a lot right in terms of urban planning, and I hope that this is a temporary phase.

Sadly, I fear it's not.

Everybody shut up, everybody shop here, don't protest or your motorcycle will suddenly go off the highway outside Pinglin. You just don't understand because you don't know 'correct values' and you need it explained to you like you're four years old. Listen to your leaders! Confucius said so! Buy these items produced by our good friends at Uni-President who swear they didn't know about the gutter oil, in a building they built, so they can profit more. They need profit. They need to make sure the politicians and police get their cut, you know, so they need it. Stop shopping near your home in stores that line your sidewalks. We have air-conditioning, and your favorite shop is here! We're not in bed with both gangs and politicians, and real estate developers hell bent on driving out every bit of soul this city has! You don't like those street-level shops anyway, you would rather it be like this. Come on, lay down, calm down, it'll hurt less that way. You know you want it. Listen to us. We are your leaders. Confucius says that the emperor is above the people. We are above you. And we are Chinese. Therefore, so are you. You must identify as Chinese. This poll said that you do.

There's no reason to muddy the waters like this. We are all Chinese. We don't like noise on the street. We do like strong leaders and air conditioning. We want our residential areas quiet and our entertainment to be safely contained, in a building built by someone rich and powerful, in another part of the city. We like it to be clear. Don't you hate these blurred lines?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Taipei - City of the Future, and the Great Walls of China

I found this article on China's urban planning mess courtesy of Alexander Synaptic's Facebook page, and felt that there was some relevance to Taiwan in here that I felt like writing about.

So while I have a couple of women's issues and hiking posts on the back burner, I'll tackle this first.

One reason I love living in Taipei (Taipei specifically, although the rest of Taiwan is not bad in this regard either) is that they have largely avoided the urban planning mistakes of much of the USA, which China is now falling prey to. It's the same reason why, when I was a resident of the country of my citizenship, I enjoyed living in Arlington, Virginia.

It's also a reason why I am not that interested in living in the major urban centers of China.

Basically, I have seen with my own eyes how Beijing was transformed, in a generation, from a city of interconnected, pedestrian-and-bike friendly hutongs connected by roads with bike lanes and dotted with historical sites and squares into a smoggy hellscape of massive ring roads, six-lane highways (downtown, even!) with unpleasant sidewalks if they existed at all and no more bike lanes. The old hutongs were either torn town for glass-and-steel monstrosities that soared into the gray-brown smog above, leaving little space for street-level development, or turned into ersatz up-market "hutongs" dotted with tourist shops replacing the erstwhile real deal.

Why would I want to live in that?

As one of my former coworkers put it, in Taipei, as ugly as some of the architecture is (and I don't think it's all ugly - only some of it - but there is charm to be found if you look closely), as you walk down the street there's a lot to see. Old stores jostling for space with new ones. Chefs from Hong Kong style restaurants smoking outside, backed by with ducks hanging behind glass. Red lanterns and carts full of barbecue, tempura, tofu, dumplings, buns, onion pancakes and more. Basically, you can walk down most streets and they practically shove the food in your face. But walk down a street in Beijing and you're likely to have four lanes of exhaust-spewing cars on one side, and on the other...a wall. Maybe they thought the one great wall was so damn great they needed to fill the whole city with them. Or maybe some horrible glass box - no shops, no lanterns, no food, not much street life at all really.

Why would I want to live in that?

And as this happens, more and more people are fleeing to the suburbs. Can you blame them? With a city center so uninviting to life-after-work, surrounded by not-so-great walls, it makes sense to flee.

But that's just what happened in the USA, and I don't want to live in the vast majority of places in the USA either, so why would I want to live in that?

Every time I go back to the USA, I end up being picked up at the airport. There's no other convenient way to do it. There are buses (and you have to make connections) but no Airport Express trains. It takes forever to get between cities because either you have to "beat the traffic" or take the (usually delayed) train. No bullet trains (the Acela emphatically does not count). Visiting either set of parents, we can't go anywhere without driving, and one has to drive to the nearest urban center. That's fine, if you're in the country - you have to do that in Taiwan, too - but once in that urban center, you also have to drive! There is no worse driving than that of a multi-lane open highway that empties out into a series of shopping centers interconnected in the most mind-bending ways.

Not a thought to building more public transit - there are buses, but you wouldn't want to rely on them. There aren't any subways or trams. The only subway system worth a damn is in New York, and that one is in desperate need of upgrades and maybe a nice bath. In DC, we'd head down to the Metro and find we had to wait 14 minutes - this in the early evening on a weekday, when it's fairly busy - for a train to go three stops, but the trip wasn't walkable. 14 minutes! To catch a train to go three stops! That's only like a 5 minute trip! In Taipei if you have to wait 6 minutes (which only happens at night or on the Xinyi Line, which I hope they fix soon) you're groaning. I couldn't possibly have been a freelancer in DC the way I am in Taipei - I'd need to own a car I couldn't have afforded. There would be no other way to get between my various jobs in any decent amount of time. Everything was so spread out.

It's a reason why I can't attend grad school in the USA: not only can I not afford it (I would seriously never be able to pay off that loan), but a lot of schools are in areas where you need a car to get around.

I can't stand American urban planning in America - it's one reason why I left (also: healthcare, and fear for my safety in a country of people packing heat where the streets are not always safe for women. Guns make me feel less safe, not safer) - so obviously I wouldn't want to deal with it in China.

Taipei, on the other hand, is like the city of the future.

In DC, when I arrived in 1998, they had been talking about the "silver line" to the airport for years already. This was when Taipei's metro was first getting started (that's the year the yellow line opened). In that time, the silver line hadn't even begun construction (no ground was broken while I was in college, nor did it begin when I lived there again from 2004-2006) whereas Taipei's metro grew from an infant into a fiercely competent adult.

To recap: Taipei built an entire metro system in the time it took for DC to argue about the silver line for years, and not do jack about it. Taipei's metro is still growing, whereas the silver line, after they finally broke ground, is only about halfway complete. You still can't ride it out to the airport. It took DC to build half a Metro line in the time it took Taipei to build, basically, an entire metro system.

(This is, incidentally, why I would consider living in Kaohsiung but I hate Taichung).

Living in a city where a new metro line opens every few years and changes the face of public transit for the better (I can now take the MRT to Taipei 101 directly!) feels like a city in progress. A city that's growing. Living in a city where I felt constricted in where I could go and how fast I could get there, if at all, felt like living in a city that was slowly crumbling. The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.

Taipei residents understand the importance of an interesting, multi-use, well-connected, safe urban core that is good for something other than financial centers in horrible glass boxes surrounded by houses and shopping complexes you have to drive to. There's a reason why, despite the pushiness of various real estate developers, that nobody really wants to live in Linkou despite all the new, cheap apartments being built out there. It's the choice you make if you want to buy, not rent, but can't afford Taipei. It's not like the USA where people chose to live far from the city in boring little subdivisions where sidewalks weren't even guaranteed to exist.

I like that people here understand the life-enhancing importance of convenience, and how sometimes it's worth it to trade space for that convenience. Between having a yard and needing a car to drive to Buy 'N Large, or being able to walk less than a minute to the nearest supermarket and convenience store and restaurant and massage parlor and hardware store, I'll take the latter, and for the most part Taipei residents agree with me. In terms of urban planning, I've found My People.

Although we could have better sidewalks, urban thoroughfares netted together with quiet lanes, many planted with trees, parks dotting the landscape, street-level commerce of all types, a comprehensive public transit system and the ease of the new bike sharing program (which has been a stunning success, although we could sure use more real bike lanes with bike lane rules enforced), Taipei residents just get it. This was the urban planning of the past - the type of planning that makes towns like downtown Bangor, ME and New Paltz, NY so pleasant to walk around - and it is the urban planning of the future.

Why wouldn't I want to live here?

Another note on Taipei as City of the Future: I've become so accustomed to convenience here that the idea that I'd have to spend more than five minutes to get any given basic thing I needed has become alien to me. The idea that I'd have to hop in a car to do anything other than go hiking (and in Taipei you don't even have to do that - you can take the bus to most good hikes, and the MRT to some, too) is just ludicrous to me. I now feel that if I can't get breakfast in one minute, that city sucks. I liked Shanghai alright (wouldn't live there, though), but I had to walk 7 minutes just to find a Cafe 85 to get some coffee and baked goods for breakfast. No other options. This on Nanjing Road. That city sucks. It doesn't get a second chance. One minute to breakfast, or you're out.

I'm so used to being able to go to 7-11 for everything: buying books I've ordered, picking up a spare pair of socks, lunch, coffee (and pretty good coffee at that, at least as far as convenience stores go), copies, printing, bill paying, rental contracts, high speed rail tickets, concert tickets and more - and having two of those within sight of my building - it's like The Future, but the future is here.

No great walls. No faceless glass boxes. No six-lane highways downtown. No open-access highways to South Maple Falls Shopping Center far from your home, where it takes 30 minutes to drive to the store, get what you need and come home. None of that.

Even traffic isn't that bad: I mean, it's bad, but it's not's not like 66 in the DC area where you are basically parked at rush hour. You can hop in a cab at rush hour and still get to where you need to go in the city without banging your head on the back of the seat in frustration. You can catch a bus at 6pm and buses are frequent enough that you might even get a seat, and you'll get home in a reasonable amount of time. And you live near where you work - Taipei residents understand the importance of a short commute. A commute of over 30 minutes is basically a human rights violation to most of us.

And yes, we have to give up a little space, but there's something to be said for owning less stuff and inhabiting less space - good for the environment too. Surprisingly, dense urban cores that lack massive sprawl are also more environmentally friendly than over-manicured suburbs and snaking, gridlocked highways - and being home soon after you finish work. And for thinking "I want...whatever" and being able to walk or bike to whatever it is you want.

Is that guest bedroom and extra half bath really worth the hour-long commute and the 20 minute drive along the worst kind of road to the nearest supermarket? Not to me. I've found my people, and we are the future.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A-Cai's Restaurant (阿才的店): 黨外國人!

This past weekend I put together a group outing to A-Cai's, a historic restaurant that is scheduled to be shuttered (and possibly, but not assuredly, relocated) when the building it's located in is torn down as a part of Taipei's ongoing, and controversial, urban renewal projects.

Mao Po Tofu - spicy, too!

Fish Scented Eggplant (Yuxiang Qiezi) 

 You can read about the history of the place above, and a review here - the place is hardly off the beaten track, as much as it looks like it.

I put this dinner together now because A-Cai's the window of opportunity to go is potentially so short: I asked upon leaving if the tear-down was still in the works and was told that yes, it would happen, but "not that soon". I hope they're fighting it, I really do, but the Taipei City Government is run by such buffoons that I don't hold out much hope.

All I can do is throw in my word as another recommendation for this place. Dirty walls, old Taiwanese knickknacks and memorabilia, old-skool wait staff and good food with strong flavors that practically begs you to drink large quantities of Taiwan Beer - what could be better?

Plus, despite not being a Sichuanese restaurant, the Sichuan-style dishes we ordered were genuinely spicy. Not as fierce as Tianfu, but they put on a pretty good show of chili.

I also loved the service. None of this cutesy Japanese-style welcoming or overly-attentive waiters. We came in and they knew who we were ('cause I sound like a foreigner on the phone, natch), said "over there". We sat, got a menu, and a few minutes later - "你要什麼?" No extra pleasantries or "我可以介紹一下喔", just, "Whaddya want?" I let them know that despite a reservation for 9, that actually 11 would be coming (two friends wanted to bring guests) - no muss, no fuss, just "好" and a few more sets of chopsticks dumped on the table. LOVE IT.


So...go. Lend your support. Give 'em business. Throw a 加油 in at the end. Fight the power! Write about it. Enjoy good food. Drink beer. Beg them to re-open in a new location. Don't let this piece of Taiwanese history disappear.


Monday, April 9, 2012

Muppet Hao!

Now that everyone seems to have forgotten about the Wang family - as I am sure those in power had hoped - this story on the famous A-Tsai (阿才) restaurant as Taipei's next urban renewal victim is worth reading.

Here's my take on Taipei city politics.

I really think this says it all. Derp derp derp.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Let's See The City's Ripped Backside

I just watched this older TED Talk on the catastrophe of "community space" in the USA and couldn't help but think that much of it could be applied to Taipei, as compared to some of the older towns and old streets scattered across Taiwan.

I'll cover farther down how this relates to Taipei - at least from my perspective. With photos!

I've always felt that space is a manifestation of the mind: that the spaces we inhabit shine a light on our subconscious, whether individual or collective. An example of the more individual level of this manifestation can be seen in where a person chooses to live: an urban area, the suburbs, a small town, the countryside, and what neighborhood they live in. I don't mean in a "she likes to shop so she lives near the shops" way, but in a "her mind is uncluttered and fairly organized, and so she lives in a more open, cleanly delineated area" or "he tends toward meandering thinking processes so he lives in a building in a spiderweb of small lanes" or "she likes to observe everything going on around her from a detached perspective, so she lives on a hill/on a high floor" or "he likes to know what's happening at each market stall and under each building awning so he lives right at street level".

On a more public level, our public squares - their size, their aesthetic, what they're bordered by (is it a Crate&Barrel, or a 1,000 year old church, or City Hall?), how quiet or chaotic they are - and in the USA, our streets - say a lot about who we are as people in a community.

And James Kuntsler is exactly right: the suburban space we've created in the USA is a catastrophe, because there is no arena for that public consciousness. There is no manifestation of self or of community.

Older "small cities" that are now the size of suburbs and genuine small towns aren't a part of this: my parents' town, though I have no strong desire to live there again, is fairly pleasant with country roads and a Main Street downtown. Bangor, ME is the size of most suburbs and has a lovely old red brick downtown that is extremely inviting (the big box stores down the road not so much, but the two are entirely separate - which most suburbs can't claim). Arlington, VA is more of a city than a suburb, but for the most part it's pleasant, easily walkable and is home to many inviting spaces.

Our lizard brains, the instinctive, primitive and unevolved bit of us that still lurks back there, only to come out to save us from imminent danger, to rob, murder and steal (for a few people), and to comment on the Internet (warning: strong language) are there, too - they're in those desolate edges of suburbia where there are wasted fields, maybe an old warehouse, a few scraggy trees, a broken chain-length fence and a space that makes our conscious selves profoundly uncomfortable. They exist in cities, too (note the Iggy Pop reference in the title about the backside of the city) - think of the unappealing parts of Gotham that superheroes and cops find themselves in: old docks at night, barely-used warehouses, stretches of street with abandoned facades in front and looming buildings far behind. The parts you drive through and never stop to look at.

And yes, I do think the part of our brain that causes some people to think it's OK to point a gun at another person in order to take possession of the $10 and a subway card in their wallet is the same part that helps us intuit danger and prompts us to say horrifically rude things that we'd never say to someone's face. After all, the Internet is a kind of city, too.

These "subconscious" spaces will never be eradicated, because they crop up as the underside to our conscious planning. That said, having better public spaces, Kuntsler implies, will lower depression, anxiety and even crime (especially in children).

This exists in office spaces, as well. Good office spaces generate conversations, relationships and ideas in the way that good public spaces do. So it's a triple travesty: cube farms stultify our creative thought at work. Poorly planned "communities" (in quotes) don't allow relationships to take seed, and Starbucks has not brought cafe culture to America: it's destroyed any chance of it growing. Have you ever gone to a Starbucks to socialize and converse the way one might have done in an old style cafe?

So. What does this have to do with Taipei? Well, crime is not really a problem - of course it happens, but it's hardly the screaming issue it is back home - I can walk down the street at 3am in Taipei and know that I am fairly safe. I can't do that in any American city. Public space, however, is. While Taipei has retained its own unique style of streetscape that fits fairly well into the generally-known mold of Asian streetscapes, it's also clearly been influenced by the American and Canadian chucking in the garbage of old-style urban planning and methodology.

That's not to say that Taipei is unappealing. It is filled with gorgeous, inviting public spaces. Dihua Street - a slender street lined with attractive buildings, first-floor shops, a temple, a market area with an open square that has a coffeeshop and ringed with places to eat. Red House and Ximending - pedestrian lanes filled with mid-size buildings, first-floor shopping and a lot to look at both in terms of people and shopfronts (Ximending could be improved with a few more benches and sitting areas and better food - which is honestly not that good) with a more open space for socializing, strolling or shopping around Red House, which has been restored admirably to a place of public interest.

Red House Theater is a prime example of good community space - look at those citizens congregating and conversing, the umbrella-covered tables, the street level accessibility and the inviting building materials and facade.

The area between Longshan Temple MRT, the temple itself and the newly-restored Japanese shophouses by Guangzhou Street and Huaxi Night Market is inviting - you can sit and play mahjong in the park, wander the temple, go shopping, take a stroll, have a peek (or even sit for awhile) in the old Mackay Clinic which has been converted into a small museum about Mackay and the history of medicine in Taiwan - and it's free! All the area needs is a coffeeshop like the one that was replaced so tragically by a Cafe 85 with no seating. The bike trail that starts on the Jingmei River and winds its way up to Danshui is filled with inviting spots for sitting or general outdoor activity. The Wenzhou-Xinsheng-Heping area between Shi-da and Tai-da is quite lovely.

A totally different view from the Ximending area: more modern, but still inviting.

Notice, though, that every place I've mentioned is in the western part of Taipei - the pre-WWII section of town. Even the Japanese colonists knew a thing or two about good urban planning, and considering the extent to which they imitated Western pre-war architecture, I would guess that they extended their architectural mimicry to the delineation of urban space (I'm curious about that, actually, because I'm not sure: what a great thesis topic if I could afford graduate school!).

A few views of Dihua Street - in general a relaxing place to linger. People come here because they want to - the space makes them feel comfortable.

Now let's train our eye on eastern Taipei - Xinyi was clearly designed with public space in mind and in its own way, it's somewhat inviting. You can sit or stroll in the areas around Shinkong Mitsukoshi and there are comfortable outdoor areas around Taipei 101. The tree-lined Songren Road is pleasant enough, there are a few small parks, and that awesome chess set sculpture.

However, something about it just doesn't capture the loveliness of the western part of town. The buildings are too big, and too sterile. The area around SYS Memorial Hall is the one winner - well-planned trees, smaller shops and inviting (albeit expensive) cafes. The Shinkong Mitsukoshi plaza doesn't have floor-level shops; or rather, it does, but they're all behind glass, inaccessible, and once you enter the department store it's rather cold and antisocial. No great conversations are going to start between the glass doors and the Fendi shop, and the Starbucks is a sad little scar of tables right on the concourse. It doesn't invite you to linger the way the old-school coffee stand right in front of Yongle Market or the benches that line the square do. The "border" is impermeable: you can only go there to walk, or shop. You can't linger; you can't socialize. Nothing meaningful can happen when the walking area and the shopping area are separated by plates of glass.

Same for City Hall: you do see locals out and about, but generally it's about as habitable as Boston City Hall - barren, cemented over, no good for anything but skateboarding. The Hall itself is a Brutalist nightmare, a giant wound on the skyline that sears the eye.

Xinyi really tried, but in the end, let's face it, what was created is a bit hollow, steel-and-glass soulless. It needs, if not smaller buildings made of more attractive materials, at least street-level shops and more open cafes. It needs more permeable boundaries. It needs crossings on Keelung Road so you don't have to walk so far to get farther west.

See, Xinyi's not all bad. While this space doesn't invite one to stay long, it is visually appealing and breaks from the scraggy urban sprawl of central Taipei.

Here's the part where I'm going to get all KMT-blasting. Wanhua and Xinyi both have public areas - one showcasing the old school of urban planning, one displaying its somewhat eyebrow-raising renewal. Let's look now at central Taipei: the part of town bordered on one side by Zhongshan Road, Minzu in the north, Heping or Xinyi in the south and Guangfu Road in the east. This is the part of town that mostly developed post-war, though pre-war buildings do exist. That means it was mostly built up by the KMT, and to an extent in living memory. What do we see?

We see very uncomfortable streetscapes. Is there anything less pleasant than walking down Nanjing Road between Linsen and Fuxing? Forget the MRT construction: that's necessary and temporary. I mean the sidewalks, or lack thereof. If you walk on the flat area, you're likely to get run down by a scooter who is not going to stop for you. If you walk in the "pedestrian" (HA!) area, you're going up and down and up and down and "oh look, I would have to jump to keep going but there are no stairs", "let's pave this one in marble so everyone will slip on it when it rains", you never know when there will be an awning above you or you'll get rained on, and you can't see the shops clearly from the street thanks to the combined mask of parked scooters and awnings. This is due to the fact that the businesses lining these halfhearted sidewalks are individually responsible for building and maintaining them: that means they can decide height, material, awning-or-no, steps or slopes - whatever they want. Gotta love the individualism, but what it leads to is an uneven mishmash that is nearly impossible to deal with in a crowd or in the rain.

If you stand in a relatively open intersection (let's say Nanjing-Songjiang) it's basically a hideous sprawl of 1960s and '70s aesthetic horrors and a long, lonely look down unappealing, wide gray roads lines with unappealing buildings.

In short, there is nothing about this part of town that invites people to linger. You pretty much have to escape into a coffeeshop or restaurant for a comfortable place to sit. Could the government have promoted a worse design for urban space? I'm not sure.

Nobody actually goes to the Taipei Vegetable Market on Minzu Road because the road itself is a travesty - it's hard to get to and deeply unattractive. The only roads worth walking down without instead walking in the lanes, honestly, are Fuxing, Zhongshan at times, Dunhua at times and Heping. Civic Boulevard has to be the least interesting road in the entire city. They say that Core Pacific Mall has bad feng shui: worse than that, it's just poorly planned. There is no appealing or pleasant way to walk there, it's too far from transport hubs, and the surrounding area implies nothing but boredom and disinterest.

No wonder it's "feng shui" is off! What is urban planning, after all, than feng shui that actually works? Or, put another way, urban planning is basically feng shui with concrete (pardon the pun) methodologies behind it, rather than superstitious ones. That's why shoppers go to SOGO at Zhongxiao Fuxing - the two department stores and space around them is inviting. You want to go, even if the actual stores aren't the biggest or the best in the city. That's why the SOGO/Takashimaya/Miramar/Shinkong Mitsukoshi area is popular in Tianmu; the walk between them is pleasant; I don't even like department stores and I find myself there on occasion just because I like the space around them. (International Square is another prime example of good public space).

Truthfully, it's not all bad: Minsheng Community is so nice that every time I take a bus through it, I want to pack up and move there. It's like the good parts of Brooklyn. Guanghua Market and the surrounding area (including Huashan) is pleasant enough, some of the lanes between the major roads are nice to walk down - I rather liked the area where our friend used to live, between Jianguo and Yitong Street, north of Nanjing - the lanes are full of interesting things. Yongkang Street isn't as good for food as people say, but it is a pleasant urban street. Da'an Park is in this area and so is CKS Hall which, while I hate the man, the hall and square are quite nice.

There are things that could improve it, though: Da'an Park needs more picnic tables and better grass. CKS is fine on the inside, but just outside the gate and around the sides is rather dire (except for the hilarious Wedding Shops on Aiguo Road, which are fun to look at). Nothing is less inviting than the buildings outside the CKS Hall main gate. The area around the Presidential Building is similarly uninviting for anyone except protesters, and there are some lovely but inaccessible gates in the area.

Architecturally interesting, but I'd like to see less of the bombast:

And more of the community spaces that have sprung up within it:

I don't think I have to spend time dissecting the far south and far north of Taipei - what I've said above basically covers what I'd say about these areas. I will say that I find my neighborhood (Jingmei, near the MRT) can be quite inviting, as well as quite dissonant. I am friendly with my neighbors because the lanes around my house encourage socialization - the old women who congregate in the comfortable Y-intersection of Wanqing Street make their own social spaces, by dragging beat-up chairs under apartment awnings and making the lanes their own. Certain areas of Muzha, by contrast, are just as difficult to walk down as that blasted heath of central Taipei.

People say that Taipei residents "don't care" or "aren't concerned" about public space, but I don't believe it's true. If the old women make their own social space (and the men too: a good friend of mine famously said that "there are no bars on Nanjing West Road because the folks there, when they want a drink, grab a Taiwan Beer from 7-11 and drink it on their stoop. If their friends want to join them, they grab beers and sit, too."), clearly someone cares about it. If the old parts of Taipei have vestiges of space, and the most popular area in eastern Taipei attempts, in its own way, to create it, clearly people care. What causes them to seem as though they don't care is the space itself - the treacherous sidewalks and scooter-congested roads with no meaningful areas that have porous boundaries. The people didn't make the space, contrary to what usually happens. When the government charged ahead with development and construction in the mid 20th century, it created the space, and the space then created the people. Show them that their spaces can be better, and maybe (just maybe) they'll want to make it better, too. But what they have now? It lends itself to apathy. It creates apathy.

In short, I'd like to see more old-style urban planning return to Taipei, which would mean a return to the city as the Japanese colonists who helped build it would plan it, or at least our best approximation. I'd like to see more of this:

Daxi Old Street

A temple courtyard in Tainan

And far less of this:

Quite possibly the ugliest building in Taipei, on Xinhai Road (Muzha).

The view from my first apartment in Taipei. Super!

It's not that the government is not trying - it's that they're often, but not always, getting it right. The little marble tea-and-picnic tables and newer urban spaces are a step in the right direction for Taipei, but they need to be more open, more plentiful and more accessible. We need fewer Bella Vita shopping centers behind glass and granite, and more community shopping-and-strolling areas. We need more indoor-outdoor spaces, more trees and more places to congregate.

We need more bike trails and paths, too. The riverside bike trail that winds its way up the western part of the city to Danshui is chock full of comfortable spaces for activities, walking or chatting - more food vendors (or easier access to food outside the park) and fewer wild dogs would be nice, though.

I've always been a fan of attractive graffiti - urban outdoor art. This one can be seen on the Jingmei-Danshui bike trail, somewhere in the Jingmei or Wanlong area.

To sum it all up in one sentence: we need to undo what was done by the powers-that-be (ahem) from about 1950 to about 1995 and make Taipei a city that is appealing on a large scale, instead of being pockmarked hither-and-whither with a few appealing spots.