25 October 2016
Hong Kong has a dynamic economy but Taiwan offers a happier and freer atmosphere. Photos: HKEJ, Bloomberg
Hong Kong has a dynamic economy but Taiwan offers a happier and freer atmosphere. Photos: HKEJ, Bloomberg

Breathing the sweet air of freedom in Taiwan

Last November I went on a vacation with my father to Taiwan. For 11 days we took the train and rented bikes and explored the island.

It was a wonderful time, of course, but seeing their homes and their streets for the first time, I felt I understood the Taiwanese dream, how the Taiwanese mindset differed from the mainland’s.

On our first stop in Taipei what struck me was the freedom of movement; there are bikes everywhere.

It’s similar to the mainland in that regard, but you soon notice how the government has been responsive to the needs of its citizens.

Everywhere you go in Taiwan there are bike paths, sloped shoulders to drive on and off the pavement, and even lights specifically set up for cyclists to bike diagonally at crossing.

As a tourist I felt I could travel anywhere with little concern for practicality.

I must admit I have a thing for the light, airy feeling of being carried along with the momentum on a thin, wheeled frame as I pedaled through the city, the wind in my face. It reminded me of biking in Norway, except this time I am in the middle of a major metropolis.

The second thing you notice is the cost of living. The average income is less than that in Hong Kong but higher than in China.

However, the income inequality (as backed up by statistics such as the GINI coefficient, or a walk in downtown Taipei) is lower than both, and the cost of living is far more manageable than in Hong Kong.

Some of this could be explained by the fact that it has a vaster land area than Hong Kong, although it has far less space than China.

Taxes and welfare programs are better designed to protect the poor through high taxation of luxury items and progressive taxes. Salaries are also less spread out and the social policy more hands-on.

While it has a less dynamic economy than Hong Kong or the most energetic cities in the Greater China region, its long-term prospects are more solid, and while the focus on equality has no doubt lowered competitiveness to some degree, it has also led to social stability.

As it is I don’t think I recall seeing any beggars in Taiwan. I wasn’t looking, and it was half a year ago, but I honestly don’t remember any.

There are red light districts and a few dank and dirty areas, and poor neighborhoods and people, but I never spotted any sign of abject poverty.

Culturally, Taipei is superlative, with the best museums on Chinese civilization anywhere in the world, as its artifacts were spirited away from the mainland and preserved from the loving embrace of the Cultural Revolution.

Our next stop by a relatively antiquated rail system took us down the beautiful eastern coast, to the small resort town of Hua Hin next to the Taroko National Park (太魯閣國家公園).

It is less prosperous, but it is also laid back. The mountains, beaches and rural city are charming and the Taroko gorge a beauty to behold. 

People are relaxed, and there are small, friendly aboriginal hideouts off the beaten, wooden path (we first had to dismount and lock our bikes), unlike the more commercial presence in tourist towns and the political atmosphere in Taipei.

Our journey took us to Kenting (墾丁), to the tropical paradise of the south where the old rail system ends. Even in November it was blazing warm, owing to the warm ocean currents lapping up on the eastern shores. I hear it gets a bit cooler from December to March.

This is the most touristy of all the place in Taiwan, and I must admit it is a bit tasteless at times.

On the other hand, there is basically no law enforcement on such matters as buying fireworks and playing with them at the beach, which is theoretically illegal, but everyone did it.

My father was not amused at first, but in time he relented and joined me for the last of the rockets, explosive candles and spinning butterflies.

Whereas eastern Taiwan consists of wondrous highlands and mountains, southern Taiwan is a tropical paradise edging on a tourist trap.

While less genuinely charming and not as superlative as the eastern sights, the south definitely has the edge when it comes to accommodation and pizazz.

The bullet train took us up to our last stop at Tainan, the old capital of Taiwan.

It is much like the north, but older, with no subway system and a less developed cycling culture. It offers a great chance to catch up on more culture, old temples, statues and historical government sites.

At a temple of Confucius we were able to buy seeds from an old woman who had set up a charity outside the open area, to feed the fat squirrels jumping around in the old trees.

The bullet train took us back to Taipei and finally the jet back home to Hong Kong.

It might seem sentimental, but amidst all the good and bad in Taiwan, I smelled more freedom, more life, than I have in Hong Kong or Singapore.

People are happier, freer.

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A Hong Kong-based writer from Norway

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