HIGH ABOVE THE CITY, an elephant stands watch, with a lion, a leopard and a tiger by its side. That, at least, is what Taipei hiking maps say. The eastern hills reach four arms out towards the city, each named for a wild creature. It’s easy to imagine one appearing suddenly out of the steamy forest. Beneath Elephant Mountain, streets spread across a plain nine miles wide, surrounded on all sides by more hills, except for a gap where the Tamsui River escapes to the nearby sea Taipei’s setting is a bonanza for citizens looking for outdoor pursuits. But until quite recently the city had the feel of an accidental capital, with not much time for leisure.
Half a mile west from Elephant Mountain lies 44 South Village: a gaggle of humble, tiled-roof houses surrounded by the high-rises of the Xinyi district. Like similar settlements across Taiwan, most now vanished, it was built for evacuated soldiers of the Chinese Nationalist army, after their defeat by the Communists in 1949. For the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan was to be a temporary base from which to ‘retake the mainland’. The is land had just emerged from 50 years of Japanese rule, when Taipei was a city of showpiece official buildings on grand boulevards. This vision was almost lost in the post-war years, as first survival and then economic growth took priority.
Today the mood is different, Chiang Kai-shek’s statue sits gazing out of his mausoleum, while in 44 South Village, people picnic on the grassed-over bunkers, browse the small Sunday market and sit down to coffee by the shelves of speciality foodstuffs in the cafe. Towering over it all is Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building from 2004 to 2009. Many passers-by are on YouBikes from the city’s cycle-hire scheme – still something of a novelty in Asia, but now part of the urban landscape.
Taipei has proved it can do landmark skyscrapers; re invention today often takes the form of giving neglected buildings of the early 20th century a second breath of life. Huashan 1914 Creative Park led the trend, turning a former wine warehouse complex into a mix of galleries, shops and cafes; it has been echoed to the east by the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park: a 1930s tobacco monopoly headquarters, now home to the Taiwan Design Museum, among others. Both locations are tremendously popular, the institutional architecture softened by the riot of plant life outside, serving as a blank canvas for Taipei’s 21st-century passions.
At Huashan Park, Edward Tseng is minding the AJ2 pop-up shop, in front of an outdoor stage where people are practising swing dance. The design firm (its name spoken in Mandarin sounds a bit like ‘love home’) specialises in small, foldable sofas, as well as more idiosyncratic goods: a geometric metal-frame letter rack in the shape of a French bull dog, say, or swivel lamps on wooden bodies with legs, to sit on ledges. Since ‘Made in Taiwan’ became a phenomenon – even a cliche – in the 1980s, many mass-manufacturing businesses have moved to countries with cheaper labour.
‘In Asia’s market today, “Made in Taiwan” means better quality,’ says Edward, ‘The particular style here is multi-function, because most condos are small.’ Thoughtful design and quality coffee have joined eating out as Taipei obsessions. Night market stalls like the ones on Raohe Street hawk everything from watermelon juice to cockscombs. A huge fish market is home to Addiction Aquatic Development, where diners sate their seafood cravings under a canvas with black-and-white films projected onto it. And the local dumpling specialist Din Tai Fung has gone global with its delicate, soup-filled parcels, each handmade with precisely 18 folds in the dough.