Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jun 02 2009

Tainan trip

I took the high-speed rail down to Tainan on Friday after meeting Chenbl at the Taipei station. The Tainan station is far away from the city, of course; all of the HSR stations, apart from those in Kaohsiung and Taipei, are seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. Street grids have been laid out, and in some cases neighborhoods have developed around the stations, but getting people to move out there requires more intertia than the simple attraction of a train station can provide, it seems. Although I’m sure that shady dealings had their effect on the location choices, I’m also positive that the main reasons they couldn’t get the stations closer to the metropolitan areas they supposedly serve are prevailing NIMBY attitudes and confusing conflaguration of zoning near the cities.

We took a free shuttle bus into town, passing forlorn parks with propped-up trees, huge empty malls, unused gas stations and rows of new housing plastered with For Sale or Rent signs. It’s the American suburbian boom without the boom. Go ahead and build it, and maybe, someday, they will come. Such a plan might have worked in the north, but people down south are more entrenched in their ways. When the MRT opened in Taipei, it was an instant hit and cut down on pollution as well as traffic congestion, basically remaking the city into a much nicer, cleaner and more convenient place to live, while the Kaohsiung MRT is still hardly used, most people there preferring to stay with their trusty scooters and cars.

There were no scooters to be had at the rental places by the train station in downtown Tainan, however, so we took a cab out to the Anping area, the site of the old fort and trading houses by the sea, and borrowed some bicycles from the local police station. The massive harbor was silted in and built over long ago, but many of the old buildings remain. We got a gruding tour of an old Japanese-era house that was being restored by an ancestor of the original owners; sliding paper doors, tatami mats and high wooden ceilings. The tree house was interesting, if full of mosquitos and annoying kids trying to pull the hanging branches off. We walked around the neighborhoods I had only seen at night before, when they were ghostily empty. Possibly due to the holiday, however, they were bustling in the afternoon. We talked with one old woman sitting outside of an ancient two-sided house, which was cheaper and more space-efficient than the traditional three- or four-sided enclosures. It turned out that she and her son lived next door in a similarly old dwelling. Ancient portraits of their ancestors hung on the incense-stained walls, relatives who had been made officials, making these people a kind of royalty on the rocks. My Taiwanese was getting a workout; although everyone under 70 can speak Mandarin (and many young people speak only Mandarin, even in Tainan, which surprised me), Taiwanese feels more intimate and affectionate, especially when chatting with older people.

We rode down to the harbor to take pictures of the sunset. I’d brought Thumper’s huge-ass lens with me, just in case, but I found that I actually miss having a telephoto in my collection. Time to start saving up for another purchase, I suppose. I don’t know if I’d get such a huge, glaringly white lens, though; something like the 135mm f2 or the 200mm might be more portable.

The flat areas around the harbor are host to new developments of attractive, affordable housing. We ventured into a shipmaking factory, picking our way through the nails and broken fiberglass to the water’s edge, where a fishingboat had just pulled up to unload its traps in the twilight. Then it was over to the old street, chatting with people sitting outside their houses along dark alleys about which god they had on display just inside their doorways while I tried to get clear shots in the night of former beauty queens in wheelchairs. We were walking down the night market when I heard a woman’s voice calling, in English, “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” Of course I suspected that this was directed at me, but I kept walking, hoping it wasn’t. The young woman persisted, running up and asking me to take pictures of her soap. When I asked her why, she said her camera was broken, and she apparently didn’t know anyone else with a camera. It was a little strange, and I declined politely.

We had dinner at a place by the riverside with very ordinary food that people lined up for hours to eat for some reason, followed by some pudding and lemon tea. This was a mistake; the resulting fight for dominance of my stomach was not pleasant.

The streets were rather empty by that point, and we returned the bicycles and caught a cab to the cheesy hotel Chenbl had found in a coupon pamplet. It was a run-down place, but it had (rock-hard) beds and what could be described as air conditioning, so it was a welcome enough ending for the day.

posted by Poagao at 11:29 am  


  1. I’m pretty sure NIMBY had nothing to do with it. The point was to have the government buy up land on behalf of THSRC and then have THSRC make money off of BOTH ticket sales (running the trains) and the jump in real estate prices of the land surrounding stations (outside of Taipei/Kaohsiung). In the vast majority of places in the world, HSR doesn’t make money. But that’s only because the people that benefit the most (ie the neighbors who basically don’t have to work for one or two generations), don’t have to pay up.

    I don’t know why they couldn’t say, X% of real estate capital gains goes to THSRC within a certain distance and build within city limits instead of the garbage they have now. The government poured down so much money prior to the private capital that it’s unclear why even that would be necessary. Just subsidize to the point that private capital is willing to jump in–you’re holding a bidding process so theoretically, it should be only as much as is absolutely necessary and the bidders can make some profit at reasonable amount of risk.

    But other than that, there is the darker side that you point to of local powers making money for themselves.

    The Tainan station is especially egregious. It is basically next to Kaohsiung County, which has a station right over in Zuoying. The damn station is 40 minutes outside of Tainan City and way out of the way for the majority of Tainan County population, which is in the north. The science park is in the north, and there’s a rail station that people could transfer to Tainan City in Sinshi. Personally, I think Tainan has the absolute best characteristics for being a great city in Taiwan (weather ain’t so rainy, very nice winters, walkable unlike Kaohsiung, second best university in Taiwan, southern Taiwan Science Park… I could go on…), but the HSR station location makes Tainan a little inconvenient.

    Comment by Jane — June 4, 2009 @ 12:21 am

  2. Thanks for the detailed comment, Jane. I agree with all of it, though I am told by construction project personnel that NIMBY does in fact play a role; Taiwanese people are paranoid that they are not going to profit from any deal with the government (that has been their experience, of course), and of course there are the “local representatives” (gangsters) to assuage every few miles on such a project. That said, I did observe that they are apparently building a light-rail system from the station into town. This is something they should have done from the first, but better late than never, I suppose. I also agree that Tainan is a very nice place.

    Comment by Poagao — June 4, 2009 @ 9:55 am

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