Why Taipei is like Adele
Yeoh Siew Hoon relishes Taipei’s understated appeal
The streets are still a puzzle but they are where Taipei comes alive.
I’ve always thought Taipei an underrated city in the eyes of travellers, unlike Seoul for example, which has captured imaginations through K-pop and, of course, now the wildly viral Gangnam YouTube video by Korean rapper Psy.
In contrast, Taipei is this quiet little place chugging along on its own steam. Yes, it has its share of pop stars and Taiwanese soaps adored by Asian housewives – but it’s largely been under the radar of mass pop stardom.
Continuing the pop analogy, to me, Seoul is like Lady Gaga and Taipei, Adele.Personally, I’m an Adele fan. I like the subtlety of her music, the unique blend of sweet and raspy in her voice, the irony of her songs and how they grow on you the more you listen to them.
When I first visited Taipei many years ago, I didn’t like it. The traffic was chaotic; the people seemed in a hurry; the streets a jigsaw puzzle to navigate and the food one-dimensional. Over subsequent visits, that impression changed as the city grew on me. Taipei is a city of subtleties. Although the traffic is as chaotic, once you strip that away, you have a tapestry of colour. The streets are still a puzzle but they are where Taipei comes alive.
Its street food is varied and delightful. Take a walk through any of the main streets and you’ll be unable to resist the snacks and treats – from braised octopus to spring onion cakes and ice cream spring rolls. There’s an inventiveness and playfulness in Taipei’s street food that is also at play in its independent shops.
While the malls house the usual brand names, I like the standalone shops with colourful neon signs that make Taipei light up like a happy kid opening Christmas presents. As with any city whose charms are subtle, you need a local to show you around and I’ve been lucky enough to have friends who’ve taken the time with each visit to peel away the layers.
This is where technology and social media help travellers discover a place like Taipei, by unveiling its hidden treasures in an accessible way. Informative travel apps, review sites and maps help us to be more adventurous seeking places to see and in which to eat. And with more smartphones than ever before, we can now carry guidebooks in our pockets.
Apps like TripAdvisor City Guides uncover local experiences that travellers have long desired but found elusive. AirAsia has launched a new mobile app featuring content from its Travel3Sixty inflight magazine.
Apps created by locals are particularly useful for travellers looking to immerse themselves in authentic experiences. I have friends in Taiwan launching a new app called 24Hours.Asia and the first city they cover is Taipei. The app recommends itineraries put together by experts who are passionate about their city.
The coolest thing about the app is that it will break the language barrier with voice embedding which will tell your taxi driver where to go (according to the itinerary) in the local language or native dialect. In Taipei, this is Mandarin and Fukien.
As global as the world has become, language remains a barrier for travellers. During my last visit to Taipei, I had trouble conveying my destination to my taxi driver. Despite speaking Mandarin and Fukien, (and seriously, I don’t think I am that bad at either of these languages) he still didn’t understand and after a 90-minute ride, dropped me off at the corner of a very busy road, insisting that I had arrived at my destination.
I was equally insistent I hadn’t – but that didn’t stop him. He got out, took out my suitcase and put it on the sidewalk. I took my suitcase, dumped it back in the boot, got in the car and called my friend for assistance. How I wished then that I had an app that could communicate with my driver better than I could.