My projects come about when I land myself in a strange city and see what interests me. They are rarely planned ahead of time; I’m not that kind of person. I like something to hit me and then I go for it fast and furious.
Bikes were frankly unavoidable in Taipei because of the sheer volume of them. Now, it’s no secret that there are quite a number of bike-led cities, especially in Asia where the heat and some small alleyways and living spaces all lend themselves to bike culture. But what is a little different about Taipei is how orderly and polite it all seems to be. There was none of the craziness you get in so many cities – just a very English-like order to the traffic, and the freedom that bikes bring to people’s existence.
And another thing. Of course, in Asia bikes are imaginatively used as freight transport, with cargo piled so high you can’t see the driver. Much less so in Taipei. The bike is simply a great solution to get around town, and, where cars are more expensive to buy and run and there’s much less chance of parking near your apartment, the bike brings a practical personal freedom.
The humidity is oppressive in this part of the world, so screaming through the streets also brings the welcome relief of a good breeze drying out sweaty
clothes. The price to pay is the exhaust fumes, which can be choking at times. With a selection of coloured kagools the bikers are geared up for the frequent downpours of rain you get in Taiwan at short notice; these lightweight rain jackets cover the rider and sometimes most of the bike too.
Accidents are few, but dealt with efficiently, as most things are there. I’ve tried to research just how many bikes there are in Taipei, just for the mild interest of flinging an impressive number out to you, but nothing doing. So this wasn’t a project with an environmental slant, but more to do with my worldwide interest in how people live their lives.
I’ve travelled to around sixty countries now, and I’m really constantly reminding myself of how similar we are. Sure there’s a load of differences on the surface, more than I could possibly mention here, but underneath, the human requirements are all the same. Everyone needs food, shelter, a safe place to live and bring up their children, a partner to share life, and a reason to smile. Not much, really, but too often not easy, even in the western world.
And as any traveller will tell you, most of the world is filled with genuinely friendly people, with generosity when
they have little, with forgiveness of world history and politics from which we all suffer, and with a sense of humour that seems to be something that sets the human race apart from the animal kingdom. Taipei is no different. I walked the streets in the middle of the night quite content that I was totally safe, and, more than that, surrounded by helpful people... if only they spoke a word of English!
The city is clean, and because the Japanese controlled it for around fifty years, there is a well-ordered structure to large parts of Taipei. The grid system makes it pretty easy to understand and, in parts, it had the feel of the backstreets of Kyoto, apart from the never-ending noise of the scooters, which oddly you stop hearing after a while. Until recently it had the highest building in the world, Taipei 101, which owns the skyline with its distinctive design based on a bamboo structure; the building has the advantage of being earthquake- and storm-proof, so far.
With hardly any tourists visiting the city, or at least hardly any western tourists, it’s a place where escape is possible, at least for a while, and where some peace can paradoxically be found in the midst of a major metropolis, amongst the crowds.
where there’s much less chance of parking near your apartment, the bike brings a practical personal freedom
there are quite a number of bike-led cities, especially in Asia where the heat and some small alleyways and living spaces all lend themselves to bike culture