By killing off Shida’s cafes, international restaurants and culture spaces, is Taipei shooting itself in the foot? Several international travel writers contacted by the Taipei Times seem to think so. They say the move makes Taipei look bad and compare the current situation to a crackdown by China’s Communist Party.
“The saddest and most ironic thing about this Shida initiative is that the Shida neighborhood pioneered the scene that has made Taipei the vibrant, cosmopolitan city it is today,” says Chris Taylor, novelist and Lonely Planet author.
Lonely Planet lists Taiwan as one of its “top 10 countries for 2012,” and the latest Taiwan guidebook rates Shida as Taipei’s second best night market, after Shilin.
“Taipei now has a nightlife and dining scene that rivals any in the region and can give many major international cities a run for their money,” says Taylor. “But in 1989, when I first took an apartment in the district, it was really the only place in town where you could step out outside and enjoy a neighborhood cup of coffee, a beer and edible Western cuisine.”
“Tearing out the heart of Shida by shutting down the very businesses that have for so long defined it is no better than the ‘red is best’ revival staged by recently disgraced Chongqing head, Bo Xilai (薄熙來),” he continues. “Beyond that, it’s difficult to imagine Taipei without Shida, and its neighborhood association is doing a grave and irresponsible disservice to the city. Shida belongs to Taipei, not to a community association of curmudgeonly kill-joys.”
“As a travel writer and longtime friend of Taiwan I urge the government to protect the people and culture of Shida,” implores Joshua Samuel Brown, author of eight Lonely Planet guidebooks, including the most recent two guides on Taiwan.
Brown views Shida as “Taipei’s Greenwich Village” and believes it stands out for its “vibrant cafe culture, its night market, and the people who call it home.”
Brown feels the city government’s recent decision to stop tourism promotion of the Shida Night Market, along with the Yongkang Street food neighborhood, is “a stupid move that will only hasten the neighborhood’s demise at the hands of rapacious real estate developers.”
As for the city’s crackdown on the 16-year-old rock club Underworld, he says, “Obviously I’m deeply saddened by it. Underworld was a great little club, Taipei’s CBGBs. What’s happening to Shida is the sort of thing I’d expect to see in Beijing, not in Taipei.”
New York Times travel writer Matt Gross says that in recent visits to Shida, he found that “there was just so much going on there, from the crazy variety of international restaurants (including multiple worthy burger joints) to the effortlessly hip boutiques. It had the energy of Ximending, but with a more homegrown, grown-up, honest feel to it.”
“What I’ve always loved about Taiwan is the culture, the way people create street life and community when they’re not given specific direction by the authorities,” says Gross. “If you want to see, or feel, what Taipei is about, don’t go to the second tallest building in the world. Go to a smaller night market, head off into the smaller streets, and take your time getting to know the people and the atmosphere there.”
But when it comes to the current changes in Shida, Gross believes, “the smarter approach would be to help the extant businesses relocate and re-adapt, maintaining the cultural life that’s grown up in the neighborhood.”
“Here’s what I always say when people ask me how their city, state, or nation can attract more tourists: Don’t develop for tourists’ sake,” Gross continues. “Make your city, state, or nation a better place for its citizens, and tourists will follow, hoping to participate in a novel, vibrant scene. That’s what we do here in New York, you know, and it’s worked out pretty well.”
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