Cracks in the glitter

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 July, 2006, 12:00am

Taipei is not such a well-kept secret these days. A spate of guidebooks and travel features in the international press have enthusiastically touted the city's nightlife, beautiful and easily accessible scenic surroundings, and lively arts scene. But two recent pieces of bad news do not bode well for its continuing metamorphosis into one of the region's most liveable cities.

The first was the closing of the Jiancheng Circle on the older west side. The original Circle was a ramshackle night market located in a big, circular building. It was famous for food stalls selling Taiwanese delicacies such as duck blood soup and more upscale seafood, typically washed down with ice-cold Taiwanese draft beer.

By the late 1980s, the Circle was already in serious decline. Taipei's centre of gravity had shifted decisively to the east. The enormous increase in the number of vehicles on the road during Taipei's boom years made it dangerous and unpleasant to cross the traffic circle to reach the market. Once you reached the promised gourmet paradise, you had to fight for inside tables - as far away as possible from the rats and cockroaches that could be seen scurrying around on the pavement. Dishes were washed in the street in plastic wash basins, without hot water. After a series of fires at the market in the 1990s, the city decided it was time to rebuild it.

A fancy architect designed a new glass building and it was built at a cost of US$6 million. But when the vendors moved back in, their customers never returned. The Circle closed this month, and Taipei's citizens are angry about it.

The second piece of bad news came at the beginning of the week, when the municipal government announced an alarming report on the city's changing demographics. Although Taipei is the unrivalled centre of Taiwanese commerce, politics and education, its population is dropping. If current trends continue, the elderly, currently 9 per cent of the city's population, will make up 75 per cent in 2050. The problem is compounded by a falling birth rate - there were 10,000 fewer births last year than in 1995. That is compounded by a rising divorce rate: over one-third of Taipei marriages now split up.

This means that, despite the throngs of young people seen by visitors on the subway or in clubs, Taipei is a greying city. Taipei's skewed demographics cannot be reversed by building more things - the traditional response of the Taiwanese bureaucracy to almost all problems.

The addiction to pouring concrete worked fine when Taiwan had a rickety infrastructure. But it is far less effective in solving delicate 'software' problems, such as urban redevelopments that destroy what they set out to revitalise. Nor can it persuade women to have children.