Sunday, December 23, 2012

Taipei vs Singapore

I always tell people that living away from Singapore always makes me appreciate Singapore more. After 10 days in Taipei, I must admit that this trip has left me with rather mixed feelings. Singapore and Taipei should make for an interesting comparison. At a glance, both are economically developed and technologically advanced. They were both members of the pack of Asian Tigers in the late 20th century. But they feel quite a world apart. So let me list a few of my observations, in decreasing order of what is important to me.

I should caveat first that travelling with 2 kids, I definitely have not covered the range of experiences a single traveller would in such a time period, however this circumstance has made me more aware of certain aspects of society.

It was lovely to be transported from 30+ degrees in Singapore to 20+ degrees Celsius in Taipei. With lovely cool weather, the outdoors are much more pleasurable like going for long walks in the afternoon or even visiting the zoo. (The Mandai Zoo may be a award-winning, but you can't help but be drenched in sweat.) One thing I couldn't understand was why the locals are always decked out like they are preparing for a snow storm. Most days I was out in t-shirt and bermudas, and I see the locals wearing long coats or down jackets. If only we could change the weather in Singapore... but I think we've already done our best with air conditioned spaces and even connectors.

Caring Society
I have been very taken with how friendly and caring the Taiwanese are. On the public transport system, they never fail to offer their seats to my wife, or even to me because I am carrying a baby (even the old ladies and fat ladies, which makes me very embarrassed to accept the offer). They are very helpful in giving directions, and generally very accommodating to the needs of parents with kids. In fact, I observe that they are very sensitive to all kinds of special needs. For example, there are ramps for wheelchairs (and strollers) everywhere; each MRT station is equipped withe a beautiful breastfeeding room for nursing mothers; and I've seen station staff providing wheelchairs and even wheeling around commuters with limited mobility, accompanying them all the way until they reach their seat on the train. I see far more disabled people on the streets, trains and convenience stores in Taipei than Singapore, and it makes me wonder if there are really so many more disabled there, or if society as a whole has taken better care of them such that they are able to venture out.

In the elevators, people actually squeeze to make room, and then take the extra effort to invite you in. People randomly struck up conversations with me, whether I was in the line to buy food or just walking down the street. What would it take to make our society more caring? Another round of Singa the Lion? If only people could take this upon themselves, instead of always waiting for the government to do something ...

Getting Around
Getting around Taipei on foot, by subway and by rental car was a mixed experience. Walking in Taipei city was great - there were wide and separate paths for both pedestrians and cyclists, although this was marred by the detours created by road works and bad pollution. It was even worse in Danshui, where the sidewalks were narrow or non-existent, and pollution was terrible. The subway was generally good - even at rush our, we were always able to get onto the train, and were almost always offered a seat even if they were all occupied. And there were always elevators for our stroller, although they sometimes required lengthy detours. Driving was rather painful, as the traffic was chaotic and parking was always very difficult to find. The overcrowding on our trains could be improved. But on the other hand, the strict quotas on COEs have certainly made the roads more useable. And if only we had more space for wider sidewalks too...

One thing that greatly disappointed me was the food in Taiwan. After all the hype, it was frankly quite a let-down. My taste buds weren't too impressed, and my (actually all four of us) digestive system has been rebelling ever since. The xiao long bao's in Din Tai Fung were good but not outstanding (I still prefer Paradise Dynasty and Pu Dong Kitchen). I had Braised Beef Noodles in three different places, but only the one at Lao Zhang was really good. And the night market food while good, was a bad experience because the crowds made it so difficult to get around, and it was impossible to sit down to enjoy the food (although it would probably have been much better without the kids).

Of course, I have to make mention of the best things I ate. They are #1: The fried squid at Shi Lin, #2: oyster tempura at Japanese Cutlet in Danshui and #3: Spicy Hot Pot in Danshui. But overall, the best thing about food in Taipei was the prices! I was really glad to be back to Singapore food. This is something I can really be appreciative of.

Street hawker selling delectable fried squid dusted with Shi Lin's secret powder 

A range of delicious tempuras at Japanese Cutlet

After quite a search and asking people for directions, we finally found Lao Zhang (not where Google Maps said it was)

Update 25 Dec: Many people have expressed surprise that I didn't enjoy the food, because they loved the food in Taiwan. I do not think it is because (as one person suggested) I just went to tourist traps, because we did a fair bit of research and went to many highly reviewed eateries, as well as other random places along the way. However, I have concluded that maybe I just don't like Taiwanese food. I will take Vietnam or Japan (or even Turkey and Greece) any day - these are countries where I really have loved almost everything I put into my mouth. Unfortunately, Taiwan does not fall into this category.

I remember a recent article that the MAS is investigating why prices are so high in Singapore. This hit home in Taipei, when I realised just how expensive food and transport in Singapore is. I can understand why Singapore is more expensive than Malaysia or Vietnam, but why should it be so much more expensive than Taiwan, which is as advanced if not more so than us? A really good meal in a restaurant there could be gotten for $20-25, something I would expect to pay $30-40 here for. The zoo admission cost $3. We could go most places on the subway for $1, and the Gondola (cable car) cost less than $2.
Looking through the floor of our Crystal Cabin Gondola (less than $4 for the entire cabin)

On the flip side, I was surprised at how run down the buildings in Taipei were, compared to Singapore. And I couldn't help wondering if the two were somehow linked, are we over-spending on building development and thus raising the cost of living? Well, to really answer that question, I'd have to look into all the economics of GNP, income distribution, etc etc which I'm not going to for this post. Suffice to say, why are prices in Singapore so high?

Update 25 Dec: Over lunch recently, we were also commenting how the prices of electronics in Singapore are no longer competitive. You are much better off buying from HK or the US now. One simple explanation suggested to me is our rising GST. This makes sense as one of the direct causal factors, but of course is a result of other tax policy considerations.