Phony war

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 September, 2005, 12:00am

At 2pm on Friday in Taipei a siren sounded a ululating wail. Newcomers to Taiwan would have been perplexed and then surprised at the silence that quickly enveloped the city. The Taiwanese, though, knew at once what it was.

It was an air-raid drill. Everyone had to get off the streets and stay where they were. Military personnel in white helmets patrolled the intersections, while police checked that no one was ignoring the regulations. Buses were vacated and underground trains stopped; passengers stayed on board, except at outdoor platforms.

Then, at 2.30pm exactly, an 'all clear' siren sounded, a long, continuous tone. Within minutes the traffic's roar resumed.

Such drills, annual since 1978 but more frequent before then, seem incongruous in modern Taipei (they happen in other cities on the island, but on different dates). They are redolent of a traumatised Europe in the second world war, not the glitzy world that Taipei represents to today's youth.

I remember one military expert addressing a press briefing a few years ago. After outlining how long a cross-strait conflict might last, and how many millions would certainly die on both sides, he went on to remark that today's young appeared unprepared for anything resembling armed struggle. This is precisely why last week's drill seemed to belong to an older world. What the young now expect to do is work and then party, either in beautifully lit clubs or out in the open air.

This coming weekend marks the close of the beach-party season. I was at one such event earlier in the summer, at Bai Sha Wan, 90 minutes' drive north of Taipei. Thousands danced on the sand in four linked locations, with DJs spinning hip-hop, trance and other styles, while a gibbous moon rose in the east.

As high tide approached, a line of police and volunteers kept the revellers from entering the sea. I left well before the scheduled close at 4am, and was surprised next day to learn the event had been abruptly curtailed two hours early, on account of 'people running around' (and probably drug use).

This Saturday sees a mid-autumn beach party at Fei Tsui Wan, also near Taipei. This time 'splashing in the refreshing water under the moonlight' is an advertised attraction.

The extent to which this will take place remains to be seen. Many Taiwanese are reluctant to enter the ocean at all, and certainly not after the end of the ghost month on September 3.

Elaborate parties prior to grim battles are a staple of novels and movies. It is to be most sincerely hoped, however, that no such scenario awaits this vulnerable but infinitely precious offshore island.


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Phony war

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