For my birthday, my boyfriend had bought me a “mystery ticket”. We would be going away for the weekend…somewhere, but I didn’t know where. My first suspicions, for some reason, were Malaysia but one evening, tired after work and not thinking clearly, he let slip that it was to be Taiwan. So, Taipei I assumed, and started mentally planning. It was only when we arrived to check in for the flight that the smiling attendant took my passport and asked “So, for Taichung?”
Taichung. What did I know about Taichung? I frantically wracked my brain. Nothing. I drew a big blank.
My boyfriend later told me that when he had mentioned his plan to Taiwanese friends, they had also responded with “Taichung?”
Taiwan’s third biggest city, with a population of about one million, is not really a top tourist draw. It is not the kind of place many international tourists would pick as their top choice, lacking the big city buzz of Taipei or the lush scenery of the countryside. There is no beach. The mountains are about an hour away. Taichung is generally thought of – if people think of it at all – as a nice place to live, a spacious green city with a mild climate. So in other words, an Asian version of Brisbane. Or Adelaide, perhaps.
Once an industrial boomtown, the home of “Made in Taiwan” electronics, Taichung is now adjusting to a post-industrial future, its factories moved offshore. The new Taichung is trying on a fresh identity as a city of leisure and culture, art and cafes. But still, it retains an (endearing?) provincial twinge.
So, with modest expectations we set off for the weekend. Not expecting too much, we found ourselves surprised at almost every step. Taichung was relaxed and provincial – in the best possible way – but also more of a city than I had expected. The cafes were hipper, the sights more interesting, the art better, the architecture more arresting. And yet it still moved at a slower pace – and this was perhaps its greatest asset.
It was a city where friends could gather to barbecue squid and drink beers on the curb every evening outside their shops, and you could cycle through local neighbourhoods, but there was still more than enough to do. There was the cheap denim and thumping pop music of the Fengjia night market with its typically Taiwanese array of snacks: pungent tofu and duck-shaped candy floss, hot-dogs-in-hot-dogs, bubble tea and beef noodles (as well as the local specialty, turkey rice). Neon signs glowed and garish octopuses and pigs were perched on top of restaurants hawking different kinds of meat.
There were quirky shops and restaurants with funny names: Think Think Human Culture, Pretty Wife Eats Cheese, (and for the gay visitor, bars like “My Sister’s Husband” and shopping centre “Taichung Top City.”) There was indeed a thriving cafe culture (with a current fondness for Cuban sandwiches, a surprisingly cosmopolitan touch) and random, big malls spaced widely along long roads. A monorail was under construction, Uber had just arrived. Which is just as well, because Taichung sprawls. There is space, and sky. People are friendly. Families play in parks and people walk their dogs everywhere.
It seemed to have the best of both worlds. I returned to Hong Kong, with its harried impatient rat race and tiny apartments, daydreaming about a return to Taichung.