Living in the ‘Ugliness’ of Taiwan

I recently read the essay “Formosa the Ugly?” which is about how, in spite of Taiwan being a ‘developed’ country, there is still an abundance of cheaply constructed buildings which makes it look ‘ugly’ compared to many other ‘developed’ regions of the world. In the comments, there is a spirited discussion about whether it is actually bad that Taiwan is this way or not.

I’ve seen plenty of photos of urban Vietnam on travel blogs, and if weren’t for the fact that the street signs use Vietnamese instead of Chinese, I could have believed that those photos were taken in Taiwanese cities. This is in spite of the fact that Taiwan is materially wealthier than Vietnam.

Ultimately, it’s because the Taiwanese have chosen not to invest as many resources into their buildings and streets as many other societies with comparable wealth (though, as some of the comments point out, new buildings in Taiwan do tend to be nicer).

Well, there is the distorting factor of Taiwan’s terrain – it takes more resources to make infrastructure functional in Taiwan than in many other parts of the world, so even when the Taiwanese do put in more resources than other societies, the results may look equally humble. For example, a well-travelled engineer I knew said he had never seen any place on earth which uses as much stainless steel in its street infrastructure as Taiwan. Most places would not use so much stainless steel because it is so expensive, but in Taiwan’s case, the maintenance costs would be amazingly high without the wide use of stainless steel. Yet to the casual eye, stainless steel does not make the infrastructure look any more aesthetic, or even more like part of the ‘developed’ world.

Like the writer of the essay, I have learned how to mentally crop out the sight of such buildings, so that seeing shack built out of corrugated steel does not interrupt my appreciation of, say, a natural landscape.

And to be honest … I like the rough and unvarnished look of Taiwanese settlements. I liked that, with few exceptions, there is little appealing about the architecture and streetscapes of Taoyuan City. I found something refreshingly unpretentious about it. Function, not form. I even came to almost like the tacky faux-bamboo which the article lampoons (if nothing else, that photo brings out quite a bit of nostalgia from me).

I also remember another comment I heard from a foreigner living in Taiwan. There was a TV in the room, and said foreigner commented – “That [place being shown on TV] looks like a Taiwanese home!” What he meant is that Taiwanese homes often look ugly on the outside – but the interiors are immaculate and pretty and reflect the aesthetic investment of the occupants (they also often are not – it depends on who lives there). Taiwanese generally would prefer a beautiful interior over a beautiful exterior for their homes – and that appeals to me.

I also cannot help but notice that one can have a relatively high quality of life (okay, it depends on how you define ‘quality of life’ – I’m using my own subjective definition) at a relatively low cost in Taiwan. Certainly the quality-of-life/cost ratio is better in Taiwan than anywhere else I’ve been to in Asia – Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea (and even after factoring in the incomes of those respective places, Taiwan still comes out ahead).

So, yes, the unaesthetic nature of Taiwanese cities and towns is noted. But if Taiwan had been filled instead with beautiful buildings all over the place, I don’t think I would have been much happier there.

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