Taipei, perched at the northern tip of Taiwan, has undergone an impressive transformation in recent decades. Once heavily polluted and utterly chaotic, the progressive Taipei of today is more orderly, cleaner, and forward looking. The city’s focus on quality of life is evident in its marvelous mass transit infrastructure, its health care and education system and its increasing level of convenience.
For several years, the capital city proudly boasted the world’s tallest, (typhoon-proof) building, Taipei 101, until Dubai’s Burj Khalifa trumped it in 2004. In any case, a trip up to the 91st floor for a panoramic view of the city is a great way to get your bearings. The city ‘s National Palace Museum, bursting with cultural goodies grabbed from China by the retreating Kuomintang army in 1949, is also a quick-fire way to gain insight into the city’s (and China mainland’s) cultural heritage.
Taipei’s night markets, its fantastic food, its people, its parks (Taroko National Park and its gorge, in particular) and its plethora of temples make it an enriching city to live in. The typhoon-prone city’s passion for politics and basketball make it all the more exciting.
Mandarin is the vernacular and it would help to nail down the basics of the language, if only to get around in a taxi. You could, however, get by on English alone provided you stick to the office and the expat areas.
Expats (families in particular) tend to favor the Tien-Mu area. Here you will find a number of international schools, bigger apartments, houses, and more green spaces. It is a virtually self-contained area complete with department stores, hospitals, schools and restaurants, and is roughly a 30-minute commute to the downtown business district.
Young professionals and executives seeking more upmarket accommodation should head to Xin-yi, the up-and-coming "Manhattan of Taipei." The smart city planning applied to this area sets it apart from the rest of the city. This is where you will find Taipei’s most luxurious properties, which share a postcode with Taipei 101 and the city’s hippest clubs and lounges.
Taipei strikes a fine balance between chaos and calm, business and pleasure. This truly Asian city boasts a quality of life and level of convenience that makes it highly accessible to foreigners.
What is special or unique about your city?
Taipei, with its status as "de facto capital city" of Taiwan, serves as the nation’s major center for politics, commerce, mass media, education, and pop culture. It’s located in a valley with the Xindian River on its south, Keelung River at its north, Danshuei River to its west, and Yangmingshan National Park rounding out the rest. This perfect location makes for some breathtaking beauty amidst the high-culture cityscape.
Taipei’s cultural side is very rich. It holds the world’s best collection of Chinese art and historical artefacts. The largest and most representative part can be seen in the Palace Museum; smaller collections are displayed in the Museum of National History and in the Chang Foundation Museum.
What are a newcomer's first impressions of your city?
One of the most commonly held opinions among foreigners is that the Taiwanese are some of the most friendly and helpful people not just in Asia, but the world. This makes both working and living in Taiwan a great pleasure. Coupled with the fact that Mandarin is nothing like any romance language in written or spoken form, navigating the city in the first couple of months can be a frustrating experience. One trick foreigners learn is to collect name cards and keep them in a book. Every business will have one and you can simply show the card to a taxi driver to return to a shop or restaurant you've enjoyed.
Are these impressions likely to change?
Absolutely. Foreigners learn not to judge a book by its cover, and are pleasantly surprised by the number of interesting things to do and the beautiful corners of the city. Just ask those who've stayed for 10+ years or those who return!
What is the local language?
Mandarin is the official language, but Taiwanese is also widely spoken and there are a number of local dialects. You won’t hear much English, but each office, bank or large store will generally have one staff member who can communicate in English. In most cases, wherever you are, someone will speak enough English to help you find your way.
How easily could I live in this city without knowing this language?
Basic Mandarin classes are recommended for anyone who plans to live in the city for an extended period of time. Knowing numbers, how to correctly pronounce addresses and how to pronounce the names of basic food items are all extremely useful and can help to avoid undue frustration. Although Taipei is renowned for top Chinese eating establishments, menus in restaurants not frequented by foreigners are often only in Chinese.
All public announcements in the transportation system will be made in Mandarin, Taiwanese, English and Hakka, with the exception of the Matsu islands, where announcements are made in Mandarin and the Mindong dialect.
In Taipei, people generally speak a little English. The children often understand more English than their parents, especially with the emphasis on English language education today: English is a compulsory subject from mid-elementary school onwards. However, attempts to speak Mandarin or Taiwanese will be met with beaming smiles and encouragement, by and large.
Quite a few people, especially in Taipei, are proficient in Japanese due to the high number of Japanese visitors. Staff for tourist attractions such as the Taipei 101, museums, hotels, popular restaurants and airport shops speak Japanese in addition to English, Mandarin and other local languages. In fact, if you are a visitor of East Asian descent who cannot understand Chinese, when a worker realizes this he or she may try speaking to you in Japanese before trying English. In addition to this, some older people still understand and speak Japanese, having lived through the fifty-year period of Japanese rule.
What are good things to remember in order to avoid offending the other residents of this city?
Taiwan shares several cultural taboos with other East Asian nations.
- Some Taiwanese are superstitious about anything connected with dying. Unlucky things should never be mentioned.
- Do not write people's names in red. This again has connotations of death. When writing someone's English name, this is not a problem, but avoid writing Chinese names in red.
- Do not whistle or ring a bell at night. This is an "invitation to ghosts."
- Do not point at cemeteries or graves. This is also an "invitation to ghosts".
There are numerous taboos dictating that certain objects shouldn't be given to others, often because the word for that object sounds like another unfortunate word:
- Umbrellas, which in Mandarin sound the same as the word for "break up". Friends should therefore never give friends umbrellas. Instead, friends will euphemistically "rent" each other umbrellas for a tiny amount (NT$1, for example).
- Clocks. The phrase "to give a clock" ("song zhong"), in Mandarin, has the same sound as the word "to perform last rites." If you do give someone a clock, the recipient may give you a coin in return to dispel the curse.
- Shoes. Never ever offer shoes as a gift to old people, as it signifies sending them on their way to heaven. This is acceptable only if by mutual arrangement it is nominally sold, where the receiving party gives a small payment of about 10 TWD.
- You are expected to remove your shoes before entering a house. You will find some slippers to be worn by visitors next to the entrance door. It is likely to be the same ritual for bathrooms and balconies where you will be expected to remove your slippers to wear a pair of plastic sandals.
How might the local weather affect my daily life?
Taiwan weather is very changeable, especially in the north where Taipei is located. There are two seasons in Taipei: cold and damp in the winter and hot and humid in the summer. Winter temperatures can go down to 7 degrees Celsius, which does not sound cold until you add in 80 per cent humidity, no central heating and/or insulation and concrete buildings. Summer temperatures usually hover near the 34 to 36 degrees Celsius mark.
While you can usually get away with not carrying an umbrella, bringing a light sweater or jacket along with you in the summer is a good idea, as most buildings are over-air conditioned. Dressing in layers year-round is a good practice.
Is there anything else I should know about the overall character of your city or its people?
Taipei is a busy, active city that has made great strides in the last few years toward providing quality cultural and community activities, as well as broadening the variety of entertainment available (local as well as international performance troupes, musical groups, etc.).
The Taiwanese work hard and the concept of leisure time is still fairly new. However, this is changing rapidly and the number and types of entertainment venues are expanding to meet this burgeoning need.