The Birth Of A New Taipei

There's more than one way to appreciate a tree. On a recent Saturday morning, as he leads 25 parents and schoolchildren along a street next to Taipei's Ta-An Forest Park, Jerome Su stops before a flowering sweet-gum tree. He crushes an aromatic leaf between his fingers, then holds it to the nose of a young boy so he can smell the musky scent. "People used to feel that trees should be cut down for economic development," says the 50-year-old publisher, pointing to the base of the tree. Cracked and gnarled, the trunk struggles through the layers of concrete wrapped around its base. "Now we've got to learn how to preserve them. We'll have to get up a petition."

The fact that his class even has a tree to examine has much to do with people like Su, whose activism has helped remake the Taiwanese capital in the last decade. Once one of the most chaotic cities in Asia, Taipei is now ranked at the top of regional livability surveys. Less than 10 years ago, the whole eastern section of town was little more than a fetid garbage dump. Now luxury shopping malls, cinemas and high-rise apartment buildings fill the area. City lanes once choked with traffic flow smoothly at all but peak hours. Forbidding government buildings have been transformed into museums, literary salons and galleries. The changes are remarkable--all the more so because they have been driven primarily by Taipei's residents. Says Diane Ying, publisher of Commonwealth, Taiwan's leading business magazine, "The city now belongs to the citizens and not the bureaucrats."

To the casual visitor, places like Singapore and Hong Kong remain more striking in their sleek modernity. But no other city in Asia has changed as radically as Taipei in the last decade. Ten years ago it often took more than an hour to cross the city by car. Streets were clogged by tens of thousands of motorcycles and scooters, their riders wearing surgical masks to block out the smog. Those living on the outskirts of the city often left home at 6 a.m. in order to reach work before 9. Now 40 percent of Taipei's citizens use the subway, which opened last year, and the average person spends 24 minutes commuting each day. That has drastically reduced the number of vehicles on the roads--although motorcycles are still inescapable--and made the air breathable. In the past seven years, the level of suspended particles in the air has dropped almost 50 percent.

Rising incomes have contributed to the improvement in living conditions. (Per capita income has doubled over the past decade to more than $13,000.) But the city's transformation has also been fueled by the same forces that have driven Taiwan's democratic reforms. As native-born Taiwanese took control of the government, they began to treat the capital as home, rather than simply a pit stop on the way to retaking China. With the lifting of martial law in 1987, a whole generation of Taiwanese, educated abroad, began to return and try to raise Taipei to international standards. A burgeoning middle class had more time for leisure, which created pressure for more parks, modern cinemas and cleaner streets. Students who had spent their energy clashing with police over politics gradually turned to environmental issues. "During the 1980s the voice of an emerging civil society started to be heard," says Hsia Chu-joe, an urban-planning professor.

More recently Taipei's citizens have begun to push the government to upgrade the city's infrastructure. In the 1990s a coalition of NGOs pressured authorities into creating Ta-An Forest Park, instead of a sports stadium, on the 26,000-hectare site of a slum where Army veterans once lived among rats and stray dogs. The sprawling, $9 billion subway system, begun in 1987 and plagued by delays and charges of corruption, would likely not have been completed had civic groups not insisted on the project. Current president Chen Shui-bian was elected the city's mayor in 1994 largely because of his promises to respond to citizens' demands to reduce traffic. He created bus lanes on most thoroughfares and sent squadrons of traffic police to every major intersection.

City dwellers have taken new responsibilities upon themselves, too. When Chen was first elected, piles of garbage lay on every major city street. Collection was haphazard, and rats, cockroaches and packs of stray dogs were attracted to the refuse. In coordination with citizens' groups, Chen instituted a policy that "garbage shall not touch the ground." Citizens began to wait patiently every night, trash in hand, for a new fleet of garbage trucks to stop at their corner. As they waited, neighbors who had never met began to chat, and the nightly garbage collection became the first form of urban community many citizens--some of whom had moved in from the countryside--had known.

Similarly, a new culture of civility has grown alongside the cleaner streets and more efficient transportation systems. City thoroughfares now boast broad sidewalks where people no longer jostle each other. Inside high-ceilinged subway stations, people who once fought to cram onto rickety, undependable city buses now line up calmly before the trains. A plethora of bookstores and coffee shops has fostered an atmosphere of sophistication.

At the same time, the freedoms driving its renaissance have made Taipei a cultural mecca for artists in the Chinese-speaking world. The city represents Asia's most profitable market for Chinese-language music CDs, although piracy is drastically eating away at artists' earnings. Taiwanese sitcoms and soap operas are among the most popular in mainland China. Taipei boasts thousands of publishing houses, compared with 500 in all of China. And Chinese writers, including the first to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Gao Xingjian, vie to have their books published in arguably the world's freest Chinese city. "For someone who writes in Chinese," Gao said on a visit to Taipei in January, the city is "truly home."

Not everyone is pleased with Taipei's shiny new exterior, of course. Young Internet entrepreneurs, some of them among the island's IT elite, have blasted plans to raze the Kwanghua Arcade, an underground mall jam-packed with computers, peripherals and pirated software. (Neighbors are insisting that the stalls be relocated into a cleaner shopping center--in another part of town.) They fear that the arcade's atmosphere of creative chaos will be lost in the gentrification. "Think of it this way," says David Chen, the founder of IO Net, a popular electronic community. "The more concentrated things are, the more efficient they are, like the motherboard of a computer."

Nor has Taipei eliminated the domestic problems inherent in any large city. Last year police recorded 56 murders, 184 rapes and more than 32,000 burglaries in the city. But Taipei's rebirth at least presents an example for the mainland's own overcrowded, smog-choked metropolises. As his class wanders down a flower-filled alley near Ta-An park, Su points out a profusion of purple wisteria tumbling over the glass shards atop a cement wall. "Like trees and flowers, people need the right environment," he says. "As long as the government doesn't interfere too much, they will find their own space." And with luck, make it their own.