The first thing I noticed about Taiwan was how laid-back everybody seemed. Megacities like New York, Tokyo, and Shanghai are suffused with a frenetic energy; in Taipei everyone just kind of seems to saunter along. People are not in a hurry, they are not obsessed with details and busy-work. In eleven days in the country, I didn’t once hear raised voices, or witness a disagreement of any kind, or see two people get in each other’s way. In Japan people dress up to go to the convenience store; in Taiwan people in trendy neighborhoods look like they shop at Target. When I asked Audrey Tang, the Minister of Digital Affairs, why Taipei doesn’t renovate more of its dilapidated old buildings, she replied “There’s no social pressure for that.”
Oh and by the way…I met Audrey Tang! Thanks to her ideal of radical transparency, a public transcript of our discussion will be published in a few days. The way we met was extremely in keeping with my impression of a laid-back Taiwan — I randomly met a friend of hers at a networking event, and he just shot her a quick email. Tang is a bit of a personal hero of mine, and the conversation lived up to or exceeded my high expectations in every way. (If you really want to see her expound at length, check out her interview with Tyler Cowen.)
That’s just the way Taipei is — the feel of a small town with the amenities of a big city. It’s interesting that I came to Taipei directly from Amsterdam, because the two cultures remind me a bit of each other — the quiet laid-back attitude, the social tolerance, the (often annoying) scooters. The gender equality and gay rights as well, and the extremely low crime. Branding Taiwan the “Netherlands of Asia” might be a bridge too far, but it’s probably a future many in Taiwan would aspire to.
The Netherlands was a small country that for a long time resisted domination by bigger, more aggressive neighbors, though it eventually established its own empire — which, interestingly, included Taiwan for a while. Taiwan has spent most of the last 500 years as someone’s colony — first the Dutch, then a gang of Ming Dynasty loyalists and pirates, then the Qing Dynasty, then the Japanese. The final episode of colonization was when China’s defeated Nationalist government fled to the island with 2 million of their supporters, brutally dominating and suppressing the 6 million locals. Though Taiwan is a liberal democracy today, and the distinctions between the descendants of the Nationalists and the descendants of earlier settlers have faded quite a bit, this historical episode does lurk a bit beneath the surface of Taiwan’s modern-day political divides.
Culturally, Taiwan is very much not China, and this becomes apparent as soon as you leave the airport. The food — and food is Taiwan’s national pastime — is obviously Chinese-derived, but is really its own thing. It blends all the regional cuisines of China into a mishmash, because the Nationalists came from everywhere, and it adds touches from Japan, but it also has plenty of the purely original flourishes that emerge from any rich consumerist society. Milk tea is everywhere, as you might expect, though tastes have moved beyond the classic boba formula. The urban layout of Taipei, the signage and architecture and design, are definitely not Chinese, nor are they Japanese; they’re something new and recently made. Almost two years ago I wrote that “Taiwan is a civilization”, and I stand by that formulation.
What can you say about a whole civilization after just eleven days? I’ve lived more than three decades in America, and my own society constantly finds new ways to astonish and confuse me. Maybe nobody ever really knows what any place is like. All you really get are hints and feelings.
Taiwan feels like a highly individualistic place. Twice I found myself in a bar where there was just one person dressed in full punk rock regalia. Sometimes it seemed like everyone has their own small business. The locks on my Airbnb door were ad-hoc, hacked-together electronic gizmos. Lots of people make up Anglophone names for themselves, and some change it on a whim; I’ve met Taiwanese people who went by “Annester” (a portmanteau of “Anne” and “Chester”) and “Uniko” (from “unique”). There are little touches of cuteness everywhere — not the Japan kind of cute, or the French kind, but something unique to Taiwan.
Individualism seems to infuse the country’s politics as well, at least among the younger generations. The 2014 Sunflower Movement — which opposed a deepening of entanglement with China — featured various experiments in radical democracy and digital activism, in which Audrey Tang herself played a role. It gave rise to various follow-on waves of activism, provided inspiration for Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, and spawned a generation of idealistic and often highly original politicians. Some of the Taiwanese people I talked to brought up this movement in casual conversation, speaking of it with great pride.
My sense is that this individualism goes hand-in-hand with Taiwan’s general laid-back-ness, and its tolerance — when nobody is snapping at you to fall in line, you learn to pretty much do what you like. At times, Taiwanese self-expression can border on the goofy. Coming from me, that’s a compliment.
Why shouldn’t people be able to live this way? Why should a society be consumed with dreams of empire? Unlike the Netherlands, Taiwan is never going to conquer anybody — they’re just going to keep living their lives, strolling to the tea shop in loose-fit jeans, running their businesses in the day and raising a glass in the bars at night.
Unless, of course, someone else’s dreams of empire intrude. Taiwan exists under a sword of Damocles — an ever-present threat of invasion, conquest, and destruction by the People’s Republic of China. In the 2000s those threats eased up, but they have intensified alarmingly since the pandemic. I asked a number of Taiwanese people about the threat of war, and they were surprisingly nonchalant. The threat of Chinese invasion has always been present, they tell me; this is nothing new. It’s “the same as earthquakes,” Audrey Tang told me with a shrug. Sometimes disasters happen. If their country is invaded, Taiwanese people say they’ll fight, just as the Ukrainians fought. But until then, why worry?
That insouciance belies the urgency of the need for preparation. Taiwan’s military strategy and culture need deep reforms (which, thanks to the Ukraine war, they may finally be getting). On top of that, the country could probably stand to build a network of bomb shelters linked by deep tunnels, in case of saturation strikes by Chinese missiles. No matter what preparations Taiwan makes, of course, it won’t be able to indefinitely resist a country 60 times its size without external help. I predict that it would get that help, since China probably wouldn’t risk an invasion without first attacking U.S. bases in the area, touching off a wider war. But I digress.
Why should a peaceful, prosperous, gentle country like Taiwan be forced to prepare for the threat of invasion and bloodshed? There is no principle of human morality or justice that says they should have to. Instead, it’s purely the law of the jungle; there are predators in this world, and they will conquer what they can until they are stopped. China’s leaders want to conquer Taiwan not just because they want to rival the old Qing dynasty in territorial extent, but because Taiwan represents something to them that they can’t abide — an alternative blueprint for Asia. Perhaps even more than Japan or South Korea, Taiwan shows people in China and its satellite states what they’re missing — a way of life where people can just be themselves, instead of living in service to a grand empire.
In some ways, Taiwan shows Americans what we’re missing, too. I found Taipei to be something of a haven for Asian American expats, partly because of linguistic and family ties, but partly because it offers America-like consumerism and opportunity with Netherlands-like safety and tolerance. Taiwan hasn’t yet caught on as a travel destination among the broader American populace, partly because it hasn’t yet managed to replicate the pop-cultural appeal of Korea and Japan. But if you’re thinking of taking an overseas trip to see a cool new place, Taiwan would be at the top of my recommendation list. I liked it a lot. It was cool. Long may it stand.
I enjoyed these observations about Taiwan and generally agree with them.
Audrey Tang is right that there is little social pressure to rebuild Taipei's many dilapidated buildings. But a more important reason is the system of land and building ownership. A typical five floor apartment block in Taipei has ten separate owners. It's almost impossible to buy them out or have them agree to rebuild.
It seems that you don't think these dilapidated buildings are solar punk anymore ;) Taiwan does have many interesting industrial era ruins. Spectral Codex has many fine examples focused on abandoned theaters. Taiwanese artist Chen Po-I is also good.
Taiwanese may not be quite as laid back as you think--people work an average of slightly more than 2,000 hours per year. That's the fourth longest hours in the world. There is a more leisured class in Taipei though.
It is true that there are many kinds of regional Chinese cuisine available in Taiwan, but Taiwan has its own distinctive indigenous cuisine that is undoubtedly the most common, popular, and overlooked. Clarissa Wei, among others, is rectifying this.
Taiwan was a paranoid, fearful, authorization, and high militarized society a few decades ago. While the military did have to keep on eye on China, it largely functioned as part of a security state that repressed the Taiwanese people during forty years of military law. Its demilitarization was closely linked to the emergence of the democratic and tolerant society you appreciate now. This is an important reason for why the Taiwanese have not dropped everything to focus on defense as many with good reason feel they should.
Another reason is that Taiwan is deeply politically divided. Some political parties here are doing everything they can to increase suspicions that the US is a fickle friend who just wants Taiwan to buy expensive weapons. In effect, they think that a negotiated surrender to China on the best terms possible is the only responsible way to prevent Taiwan from turning into another Ukraine. In short, the insouciance you observed is the result of many complex domestic factors.
These are relatively minor points. I hope you have the chance to come back to Taiwan soon to expand your understanding of what you rightly call its unique civilization.
Your “feeling” about Taiwan after just 11 days there and mine after more than 20 trips pretty much align - it’s a likable place and an interesting blend of cultures. I also don’t quite get why they are so nonchalant about the threat of invasion - the mandatory army service in Taiwan is nothing like Israel or Switzerland, the soldiers are barely getting any training at all according to my friends who did their 6 months in the Army.
On the relative lack of ambition, this is a source of deep frustration for many of the more daring and creative Taiwanese - fortunately many of them are able to study or travel for an extended period abroad and get at least exposed to the more cut-throat and less conflict-averse cultures. Just like its fauna, Taiwan feels like an ecosystem with very few natural predators - it’s easy to let down your guard and that’s fine as long as the predatory neighbors don’t pull off an amphibious assault one day.
Glad you got into Taiwanese music - some of their most interesting and original stuff is aboriginal-based, the Native cultures are growing in cultural importance since the introduction of democracy and add a uniquely Taiwanese flavor that clearly distinguishes it from the mainland (where in contrast minority cultural expression is brutally suppressed). Oh, and finally a personal tidbit - I actually collaborated with 9m88 on one of her (so far unreleased) songs!