Weaving urban legends —the Taipei MeTro


2017 / April

Lung Pei-ning /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

Unlike the high-speed rail or regular trains, which enable travel throughout Taiwan, mass rapid transit (MRT) systems are most useful for journeys within dense metropolitan areas. It doesn’t take long to get from historic Fort San Domingo in Tam­sui to Tai­pei 101 on the bustling east side of Tai­pei City, or from the hillside tea gardens of Mao­kong to the open expanses of water at the mouth of the Dan­shui River. On the Tai­pei Metro, you move rapidly from the mountains to the sea, from the historic to the modern.

“The urban legends of cities so often feature subway systems as a background,” says ROC deputy minister of culture Pierre Yang, who was once an engineer for the Parisian public transportation system operator RATP. After the last trains ran on the night of March 31, young engineers would often switch the station signs. The next day they would enjoy the sight of panicked passengers, who believed that they had missed their stop. It was a twisted gift to riders on April Fools’ Day.

Yet, in the view of their senior colleagues, the prank wasn’t worth the effort. Ever since 1996 French subway stations have featured public art, so the stations are no longer recognized simply by their geographical names.

Art fosters spirit

Distinctive public art and outside scenery both provide a means for passengers to recognize stations. The Moment We Meet, a work of public art at the Tai­pei 101 metro station, is the most arresting public artwork in the MRT system.

Created by the cutting-edge artist ­Huang Hsin-­chien, the work features a 10 x 10 grid of split-flap displays of the type that were long used in airports and train stations to announce expected arrival and departure times. The difference is that in ­Huang’s work the split flaps, rather than supplying different numbers, hold facial features of people of different ages, genders, and ethnicities, and they regularly flip to show a new face. The caption to the work reads: “Travelers’ journeys, like the flipped pages of a book, produce in people’s hearts and minds countless stories of encounters that belong to Taiwan.

On the same metro line, less than ten minutes away in Da’an Park—“the lungs of the city”—the public artwork Da’an: Slow Forest Life (which in Chinese sounds similar to “slow living”) expresses the original natural character of the area. It was nominated by the Ministry of Culture for a Public Arts Award.

The Jian­tan MRT station, which once won a special prize from Taiwan Architect magazine for its modern design inspired by a dragon boat, resembles a suspension bridge. Its unique appearance prompted Thrillist to call it one of the world’s ten coolest rail stations.

Exploring the public art of mass-transit systems is full of the joy of discovery. The convenience of getting on and off trains wherever one pleases makes it easy to explore the city one MRT stop at a time. The freelance writer Archer, who in Chinese goes by the name Shui Pingzi (“Water Bottle”), enjoys riding the MRT for no other purpose than… riding the MRT.

Corridors of history

Archer is good at using the MRT for thematic trips, such as explorations of the city’s past and present via juxtapositions of old and new maps.

Captivated by old things and history, he used to play freely as a child in the then semi-rural ­Xinyi District of Tai­pei, an area that has now been entirely transformed by gleaming modern buildings. Consequently, Archer now keeps his eye out for old things, hoping to keep the memories that they hold from disappearing forever.

Having boarded mass transit systems to connect to history and culture in many cities, he uses them as launching pads to aimless wandering, as he searches for a taste of things at once familiar and novel. And it’s no different when he’s home in Tai­pei, where he often takes the metro to a neighborhood, before exploring its lanes and alleys and using his senses to unveil its secrets.

Take, for instance, the area around the Min­quan West Road station: Today’s Zhong­shan North Road is the former Cho­ku­shi ­Kaidō (“Imperial Envoy Avenue”). From the Japanese colonial period through the era of American aid after World War II, important foreign visitors would inevitably visit or drive down it. Consequently, it was often called “Foreign Relations Boulevard.” But the United States and Taiwan have long since severed diplomatic relations, and in recent years the stretch of Zhong­shan North Road near Min­quan West Road has become a gathering spot for immigrants and guest workers from Southeast Asia, who come to relieve homesickness. They have given the area a new atmosphere. Known as well for its many bridal shops, the road is lined with maples and camphor trees, which lend it a delightfully exotic air. 

A new tool to explore the city’s past

For Archer, riding the metro is like entering a time machine. He rides this newfangled means of transportation to explore the city’s history. When he takes his favorite Red Line (the Tam­sui‡­Xinyi Line) memories of the old Tam­sui train line float into his mind.

Archer’s favorite walking destination on this MRT-­enabled trip is to Alley 41 of Fu­shun Street. Seen from this vantage point, the moment when a metro train bursts out from the underground tunnel is like a scene from the Japanese cartoon Science Ninja Team Gatchaman.

Aside from the Red Line, Archer also enjoys riding the Brown Line (the Wenhu Line). From one end to the other, the line holds many attractions. At its southern terminus, travelers can visit the zoo or ride the Maokong cable car. Around the middle of the line’s route, they can see ­airplanes ­landing or taking off at Song­shan Airport. And when the train passes Dahu Park, they can catch views of Moon Bridge, which is famous both in Taiwan and abroad.

Pierre Yang, too, often advises foreign visitors to take in the scenery along the Red Line toward Tamsui.

Once the Red Line passes the Min­quan West Road station, it emerges from underground to a viaduct over the floodplain, offering beautiful views of the Kee­lung and Dan­shui rivers. Distant views of Mt. Guan­yin and the ocean also come into sight. It’s very pleasant. If visitors have more time, Yang suggests they also ride the Brown Line, which evokes an altogether different feeling as it moves along a track among high-rise buildings.

Subway systems’ origins date back to an old British peri­od­ical. Humorously commenting on the congestion that plagued British cities, one cartoonist envisioned a tube into which people would be stuffed before a button would be pressed and they would “jump” through the street grid to their destination.

That bit of whimsy inspired people’s imaginations, and engineers turned fancy into reality, putting tracks into the air or underground. Today that image of a tube-enabled “jump” is fixed in Yang’s mind. The word is a key to his approach to the subway.

“If you say that the high-speed rail fills people with dreams, MRT spaces bring people back to reality.” There are mere minutes or tens of seconds between stations, leaving busy urban people with no time to dream. Just when you are about to go off into a daydream, the tight schedule brings you back to the present. 

A moveable feast

Yang says that subway systems are the mass-­transit tool with the greatest sense of purpose. Passengers simply lack the time to stop and take in what is around them. But, he pleads, “From a ‘useful’ transportation tool, we ought to push it toward becoming an ‘enjoyable’ one, where we sense the changing rhythms as trains speed up and slow down.” The French poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote, “The form of a city changes faster, alas! than a mortal’s heart.” Yang urges people to open their senses to enjoy the MRT as much as possible.

At any moment, as people come and go, a metro station can engender stories of human encounters. The design of a station and the placement of public art within it can create a special character, allowing people to produce their own “urban legends” in just a short few minutes there.                                                         

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