Photo: National Palace Museum © SUPERJOSEPH | DREAMSTIME.COM
ACROSS THE CHOPPY WATERS from mainland China in Taiwan’s capital of Taipei, a bold wind of creativity spurred on everyone from whiskey makers to IT innovators.
Last fall the government initiated a high-tech project to rival America’s Silicon Valley under a new scheme dubbed “the Asian Silicon Valley,” a masterful economic plan to be completed by 2023 in neighboring Taoyuan City. A $357.9 million budget has already been slated this year alone to help startups and research and development for internet industries. Meanwhile, the Taiwanese whiskey distiller Kavalan earned a reputation among whiskey connoisseurs as the world’s best. In 2015 Kavalan’s Solist Vinho Barrique earned the title “World’s Best Single Malt Whisky” from the prestigious World Whiskies Awards.
But Taipei hasn’t always enjoyed this sweet smell of success.
Located in the heart of the Asia Pacific region, the ancient island carved from two geographic plates nearly 5 million years ago weathered its fair share of storms. Once the hub of early Chinese dynasties like the war-mongering Eastern Wu Dynasty and European empire-seekers like the Portuguese sailors who christened the island paradise Formosa, Taiwan has, indeed, encountered rocky waters over the years. The biggest upheaval came during the Civil War in China that saw the exodus of KMT national party leader Chiang Kai-shek. In 1949 he established the Republic of China, as Taiwan is officially recognized, and shipped historic national treasures from the mainland across the Taiwan Strait. The ancient collection remains on display at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Now with a new president — the island nation’s first female leader, who assumed her position in May — Taiwan yet again establishes its footing as China closely watches the new administration from the sidelines. As of this writing, U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump indicated his intent to withdraw from the region’s Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But for now, it’s anyone’s guess. The capital of Taiwan, Taipei, located on the northern tip along the Taipei Basin, enjoys vast resources from its surrounding mountains teeming with hot springs to its buzzing metropolis of 2.7 million residents who never seem to sleep.
Welcome to the Gateway to Asia. Situated at the center of East Asia’s golden routes such as Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai, Taipei is ideally located to promote trade within the region and globally. “Taipei occupies a key position in international transportation. From Taipei Songshan Airport, one can fly to Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and 14 major cities in mainland China,” says Chung-chieh Lin, commissioner, Department of Economic Development, Taipei City Government. He notes for many enterprises, Taipei is the springboard to the Asia Pacific market. “It takes only 40 minutes’ drive and 19 minutes by high-speed railway to get to the Taoyuan International Airport. Flying to Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, Manila and Sydney takes only about three hours on average.”
Business travelers find the local facilities, services and hotel room inventory favorable for hosting events and meetings. “There is an international conference or exhibition every three days,” Chungchieh Lin says, and lists among them COMPUTEX, the world’s second-largest computer show, and the Taipei International Bicycle Show, Asia’s biggest bike show. Events on the conference roster use facilities such as the Taipei World Trade Center Hall 1, the Taipei International Convention Center, the Taipei Nangang Exhibition Hall 1 and the new Taipei Nangang Exhibition Hall 2.
On infrastructure, the capital boasts 35,000 guestrooms in 27 international hotels, with 500-plus other hotels. Free WiFi hot spots dot the entire city, including a convenient mass transportation system.
“The rapid transit system throughout the city is utilized by 1.58 million people at a time during daily commutes,” says Chung-chieh Lin. “With the high-speed railway operation, Taipei has become the country’s biggest transportation center and the first choice for domestic and foreign firms to build their logistics centers, operation headquarters and centers of innovation.”
Foreign businesses have taken note. Named the world’s best place to live for expatriates by the world’s largest expats network, InterNations, respondents in the organization’s latest survey identified quality of health care plus the lower cost of living as factors.
“Taiwan’s nature, friendliness and advanced economy have helped put it above the likes of the U.S., Australia and Hong Kong as the best place in the world for expats to live,” says Forbes contributor Johan Nylander.
A highly educated workforce offers another huge bonus. Today nearly 70 percent of Taiwanese aged 18–22 are in a higher education institution. For three consecutive years (2010–2012), Taipei City received full marks for education services in the Global Liveability Survey conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit. “All the best universities, R&D resources and top businesses are densely concentrated in the city,” Chung-chieh Lin says. “As a result, Taipei has become the center of human resources development and attracts top talents of the high-tech industry from overseas.” He speculates Taipei could become the best choice to develop and explore the Asian or even the global marketplace. “We want to make the city a good environment for business development in the hope of creating an open, friendly city that sustains endless imagination and possibility,” he says.
No one knows what the future holds for this Asian tiger. Yet in this densely populated capital optimism grows among the crowds of youth buzzing throughout the districts and supersize-me malls. It’s a West-meets-East scene as legions of them clutch their cellphones, speculating on the newest Pokemon phenomenon or the next big thing.
Taipei full-throttled its way to becoming the capital of techno-chic, fusing the best of Eastern and Western styles as millennials don the latest fashions. Head to the all-night dance clubs and rocket up Taipei 101 for some canoodling. It’s as if the Taiwanese creative spirit has been let loose in a playhouse of modernity.
For urban experiences, head to any Eslite Bookstore, a literary shrine open 24/7. Then hit the streets via an easy YouBike ride and pass by interesting shops, food places and cafés. Troll the network of pedestrian zones of the Ximending District in the east end. Known for Tattoo Street, the vintage Red House Theater showcasing spoken-word and vocal performances, and movie houses along Hanzhong Street, the area oozes youth power.
Other big discoveries include the city’s temples, like the crowd-pleaser Longshan with throngs of worshippers, and traditional markets in Snake Alley. Watch for crazy fashion fads à la Tokyo grunge chic. Shopping takes on new meaning at the mall and fun park in one, Miramar Entertainment Park. Shoppers scale the nine floors of retail and restaurants and head to the mega-huge IMAX theater, ending the experience at one of Asia’s highest rooftop Ferris wheels.
For downtime, leave downtown — within 30 minutes, nature gets top billing. Taipei boasts the Beitou Hot Springs. For a stunning retreat head to misty Yangming Mountain and indulge in a hot bath treatment at Hsin Peitou’s Villa 32. Hong Kong action star Michelle Yeoh and corporate brass soak in the mineral-rich outdoor baths of this ultra-luxe hideaway hotel.
For more outdoor experiences, hike trails on one of the city’s 20 mountain footpaths like those at the view-rich Elephant Mountain, or swoosh down one of the scenic bike trails around the Tamsui River basin. For more extraordinary sightseeing, take a mountain gondola to Maokong and sip the best green tea at the teahouses overlooking Taipei.
Come nightfall, Taipei takes on a new dimension. Prepare for sensory overload at the Shilin Night Market, Taipei’s largest. Cruise the countless food stalls while battling an endless tsunami of patrons vying for cheap goods and street eats. Find discount prices galore for pretty much anything sold here. For favorite street food, try fried spring onion pancakes at Guo House and a crispy little roll wrapped in a big roll known as “little bings in big bings.”
For the ultimate panoramic night views, take your pick. Yangmingshan National Park is nature central, while Taipei’s signature landmark, Taipei 101, packs in the best view of city lights.