Taipei: Life is out there on the streets.
By Yeoh Siew Hoon
Tuesday, 25th May 2010
Out on the streets is where the real Taipei is found, says Yeoh Siew Hoon, but more must be done to make it visitor-friendly for the non-Chinese speaking visitor.

Colourful Taipei

I have to confess that I've never given Taipei a lot of attention as a leisure destination. But then in the last year or so, I've started hearing people say things like, it's got the best nightlife in Asia, it's got the best street food and the city's so cool and funky.

So last weekend, I decided to give the city a pleasure test. I had some business but really, that was only the excuse for what was mostly a leisure trip – blame it on the Chinese work ethic my father ingrained in me.

My impressions of Taiwan thus far have been of politicians who do crazy things in Parliament, one or two juicy sex scandals and awful television soaps which my mother loves – they are in Hokkien, a dialect we speak in Penang as well.

I remember a not particularly attractive city, architecture-wise; and bad traffic. Other than the Taipei 101 landmark which sticks out like a huge thumb in the city's skyline, the architecture is still generally rather unimpressive, rather haphazard and well, one could say, eclectic.

Which, to me, is its charm. It's not organized like Singapore. It's not big and sprawling like Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta or Bangkok. It's like lots of little neighbourhoods that make up the city – and it is in these neighbourhoods that you feel, and taste, the real Taipei.

They remind me of parts of Japan, bits of China and slices of Hong Kong – but, make no mistake, they are all distinctly Taipei. And while global fast food joints are plentiful, there are as many local cafes, bars, shops and restaurants that give the neighbourhoods a local, authentic feel.

Street food

The difficulty is while the real Taipei is out on the streets, it's not very accessible to tourists, especially if you don't speak the language. English-language signs and menus are a rarity, as are English-speaking staff in local bars, cafes and restaurants.

Taxi drivers do not speak English too but the ones I met are the happiest taxi drivers I've ever encountered. In Singapore, they are jaded and always complaining. In Taipei, they are enthusiastic about their city.

One told me I should buy a house in Taipei because it's the best place to be if you're Chinese, plus it has good medical facilities and very safe. He must think I am close to retirement age. "You can walk from your hotel anywhere at 3am and there will be no problems," he said.

I think he wasn't referring to Manga though, the neighbourhood of gangsters that was made famous in the Taiwanese movie of the same name. Manga is now one of the city's most visited attractions – when I was there, there were lots of tourists posing for photographs in front of the locations used in the movie.

I like the fact that you can hail a taxi anywhere and they are so plentiful, unlike in Singapore where since the two casinos opened, have become even rarer than the white rhinoceros.

The best part about Taipei is the street food. People are always eating something somewhere anytime. It's most famous for its beef noodles and every Taipei resident will tell you their favourite stalls. The stock is rich, the beef juicy, the noodles crunchy and feel free to lace it with as much chillies as you want. I like the pickled vegetables and mustard greens that go with it.

I love the sesame seed, spring onion cakes. I wolfed down two for breakfast. I like the "little dishes" that accompany each meal – Japanese-influenced octopus and prawns and bean curd in various varieties and forms. I passed on the smelly bean curd though – the pong is enough to make the white rhinoceros run for his life.

The spring roll ice cream, yummy

For dessert, we stopped at a place called Mr Jella & Ms Tofa for bean curd with toppings of your desire. But the show-stopper for me was this "spring roll ice cream with caramelised peanut" which is prepared by hand. Absolutely sensational mix of flavours.

Away from the food, there's the massage. We walked into the Kin Raku massage place one night after beef noodles and when we left, we felt like the cows in Japan that are massaged before they are slaughtered.

So why isn't Taipei a bigger destination for more South-east Asians or Europeans or Americans, I have to wonder. It receives four million visitors a year, a quarter of whom are now mainland Chinese, since the opening of cross-straits direct flights more than a year ago.

Japan's the second biggest market, followed by Hong Kong. Tourists from Europe are on the decline, and interest is not that huge from Singapore and Malaysia, where there are low cost flights operating to Taipei. So obviously Taiwan's "Touch Your Heart" campaign isn't touching too many hearts …

Ever since I can recall, people are always saying, Taiwan has a lot of potential. It was true then but I think it's even truer now. There is a shift in the global economy eastwards towards China. Japan's power has been on the wane for sometime. There is room for a third Eastern power.

Taipei's busy street (left) and quiet backlanes

There are some people who argue that the real China is found in Taiwan, where the Chinese culture is deeply and truly embedded in every part of life. It adheres to traditional Mandarin script and not simplified Hanyu Pinyin as China has done. Isn't it the case that people who live away from their motherland are often the ones who cling most to traditions? Look at Bali and how strongly it's created a cradle of Hindu civilization in a sea of Islam.

Its National Palace Museum is home to the greatest collection of Chinese treasures. It boasts 65 years of uninterrupted Mandarin language teaching. Its population of 23 million means it's got a big enough domestic market and it's got natural resources – two advantages it has over Singapore.

Beyond Taipei, it's got natural attractions from mountains to coastal scenery to hot springs – all very accessible in a compact area.

So why has it not captured the attention and imagination of travellers around the world?

Perhaps the promotions have not been aggressive enough but there's one thing it needs to do in addition to promotions, if it wants to ensure a more diversified visitor mix – it needs to become more visitor-friendly for the non-Chinese speaking tourists. I am told English is now being taught in elementary school, in recognition of the fact that more of its younger citizens need to be fluent in English.

If it doesn't do so, it risks being swamped by mainland Chinese visitors – there is talk of going beyond the current 270-flights-per-week ceiling – and as we all know, too much of one thing is never good for anyone.

Like the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, Taiwan needs to ensure its visitor mix is kept in balance so that the real Taipei endures.

Photos courtesy of Yeoh Siew Hoon

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com. Get your weekly cuppa of news, gossip, humour and opinion at the cafe for travel insiders.

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