Living on dreams

People in Taipei pay tribute to the idea of 'the south', but most are happy not to go there more often than necessary. 'Yes, it is different,' goes a common response, 'but I will have to be back up north again by the evening.'

Southerly Pingtung county is both enervating and sad. I expected picturesque fruit trees and contented southern charm, along the lines of Italy or the Mekong Delta. Instead, it felt more like the southern United States of legend - sultry, marginalised, living on its dreams, and unprofitable for all but a few.

The first thing you notice are the flags - vast, improvised sheets on sticks - waved almost under your car's front wheels in an attempt to get you to stop at a restaurant or love motel. The phenomenon sums up the plight of the Taiwanese south: you want to take a quick look and leave, and they are desperately trying to make you stay.

The latest Pingtung fashion is coffee. There are mobile kitchens everywhere, selling genuine ground coffee in plastic cups. Surely this is what the urbanites want, you imagine them thinking. But it is also a coded signal that only the patronage of the visiting city dweller can rescue them from decay and economic blight. Salvation lies in the hands of others, not themselves.

All the coffee vendors are illegal, I was told. But they pay a monthly fine of NT$9,000 ($2,222) and hope to make a profit nonetheless. Most are doing it as a second job, and trade only at weekends.

The flags advertise fruit stalls, too, offering mangoes, pineapples and persimmons, all colourfully packaged. Taiwan's fruit growers have suffered badly from imports following its accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2002 and direct sales are now vital. But there are no romantic orchards, only oppressively humid clay fields, artificially watered and with crops draped in perforated black plastic sheeting.

Then there are the love motels. Advertised by heart-shaped signs complete with flickering fairy lights, one wonders why they are here in particular. Is Pingtung as far as the Taiwanese can get from home and prying eyes?

Southernmost Kenting, though, is attractive in good weather. There are shops selling a hundred styles of flip-flops and basketball caps, with seaside buckets and spades aplenty. But try a beach a little further north and you could find dunes of pebbles shored up with cast-off tyres, backed by wind-blown restaurants full of wailing KTV (karaoke) aspirants languidly seeking fame in the humid, polluted night.

The emblem of the Taiwanese south is the betel nut. Its palm trees occupy most of the lower hills, rendering them unfit for other use. And the red mouths of the aficionados proclaim the weary hopelessness of it all: better a quick hit now than the unlikely chance of better times tomorrow.