(Written by Paul Chan in Chinese before the founding of Walk in Hong Kong)
About the trip to Taipei, let’s start with the topic of garbage.
On a street in Beitou, there was a fascinating sight that I still remember vividly. At dusk, three large trucks slowly drove into a narrow alley, and suddenly more than twenty neighbors emerged at the same time. It turned out that they were garbage trucks, each one designated for collecting regular waste, recyclables, and kitchen leftovers separately. When the trucks stopped on the road, the residents orderly sorted their garbage by category. Once they were done, the trucks moved on to the next street, and the same process repeated.
This is Taiwan’s “Keep Trash off the Ground” (垃圾不落地) waste management policy. Within Taipei City, garbage stations and trash bins are almost non-existent. Instead, garbage trucks follow fixed routes and schedules, appearing at specific stops every day. To dispose of their garbage, residents must first sort their waste at home and then take it to the designated spots on the streets at the scheduled times.
Do not underestimate the difficulty of this arrangement, as it touches upon the most challenging issue in administrative management: how the government can convince citizens to endure the inconveniences brought by new policies and collectively change their daily routines. Promoting such profound lifestyle changes is bound to face criticism from political opponents, who may accuse the government of disrupting people’s lives and neglecting their welfare. It may even be seen as a political suicide, without sufficient political power, mature political skills, and a slow and lengthy negotiation process, there is simply no chance of success. What’s more important is the determination and persistence to resolve the urgent issues faced by the city, willing to fight hard battles to promote innovation and transformation, without leaving the problems to the next administration or the future generations.
At its core, this involves whether the community shares a common aspiration and vision to make the city more attractive and suitable for living. This is something that a Hong Kong resident is well aware of, as such a scenario (being willing to make significant changes in daily life for the betterment of the city) is almost impossible to occur in our city.
Taiwanese people are skilled at discovering and telling their own stories. These stories are not simply collected in museums or exhibition halls mechanically; instead, they permeate every corner, allowing people to sense the cultural context of the entire region.
This time I visited Beitou. The opening of the new MRT line has brought new opportunities to the local tourism industry. While Beitou may not have the most dazzling attractions in the city center, it surprisingly offers a serene and tranquil place within the city. With lush green trees and flowing streams, it is an excellent choice for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city.
When developing tourist spots in this area, they are willing to put in the effort to patiently organize even the smallest details. With careful exploration, even the tiniest communities have an endless array of stories. For example, in the Beitou area, hot springs are an integral part of life, tightly intertwined with local history and everyday living. Sulfur has been a vital economic resource, and the hot springs serve as public gathering places. The “Nakashi” (a form of mobile street singing performance) emerged due to the hot springs, and there are various legends and references in literature, indigenous culture, cuisine, and transportation related to the area. As visitors wander around the region and stop at different points, they can grasp a rough image of life here and its unique stories.
They do not avoid speaking of the people and events during the Japanese colonial period; instead, they were regarded as essential parts of the local cultural evolution. They also involved students in conservation and heritage preservation work. For instance, during the conservation process of Hokutolite (the most famous mineral resource in Beitou), a local high school actively participated, allowing the students to gain insights into the transformation of their community and their land throughout the process.
Recently, I’ve been contemplating whether storytelling is still necessary and holds value in an era where information is easily accessible. In the process of developing this Beitou area, the Department of Information and Tourism, Taipei City Government came up with a fresh idea: they unearthed numerous local stories and invited LAY Hsiang and his daughter Summer Lei, residents of Beitou, to tell the stories. They carefully selected 101 stories, which can be accessed by a simple phone call for a small fee, allowing people to discover Beitou through the power of storytelling. This innovative approach liberates visitors from the need for devices to listen to recordings and facilitates a more immersive exploration of their surroundings.
Visiting Cloud Gate is like embarking on a pilgrimage. Cloud Gate has now gained international renown, and its founder, Lin Hwai-min, remains committed to the belief of “planting flowers on concrete ground”. He sows the seeds of culture in the city’s soil, diligently nurturing them, and patiently awaits their blossoming.
I visited there because of the “Wanderer” program they run. After receiving the Cultural Award from the Ministry of Culture, Lin Hwai-min decided to donate the prize money and establish the “Wanderer”, which sponsors young people to travel and wander abroad. The concept of the program is simple: For young individuals, wandering is an essential part of life learning, and for those with some work experience, it is a process of rediscovering oneself and understanding that life holds various possibilities.
Applicants for the program are required to propose specific wandering themes, and their journey should not be less than two months. The funding provided is only sufficient for them to complete their journey with perseverance, and once they set off, they each explore and seek their own adventures. Over the years, the program has achieved numerous extraordinary wandering experiences: Some participants perform silent theater along the way, spreading joy and art while gaining help from passersby to film their journey. Others immerse themselves in studying martial arts, venturing to northern China for three months to exchange knowledge with different martial arts schools and truly understand the essence of martial arts. After completing the program, one participant settled in Beijing and opened a courtyard hostel, actively inviting martial arts masters from different schools for exchanges. There was a wanderer from Penghu who chose to spend two months in Okinawa, a place with similar geographical conditions, to learn how to preserve their unique ethnic culture on the island. Upon returning to Penghu, the wanderers dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to conservation work. Another participant, who worked in the media industry, retraced their grandmother’s evacuation route from mainland China to Taiwan after her passing, following the opposite direction. Along the way, they searched for the flavors of her cooking, preserving her culinary legacy.
The program does not require wanderers to accomplish grand feats after completing their journey (only asking for an article and a simple sharing session). It doesn’t expect two months of wandering to drastically change participants’ lives. However, these wanderers take pride and feel a sense of accomplishment in becoming “wanderers.” Many of them have initiated new projects to continue their wandering experiences, be it in publishing, creative endeavors, social services, and more, bringing positive contributions to Taiwan in various fields.
The impact of the program on Taiwan has been incredible. These wanderers, full of determination and beliefs, return to excel in various fields. It makes me wonder, in Hong Kong, are we missing out on countless opportunities and wonders by solely focusing on economic value? There’s so much more to discover beyond just money.
During my visit to Taipei, I had the opportunity to learn about the work of South Village. Its director, Han Lianglu, is a remarkable individual, passionate about culture, appreciates fine cuisine, and advocates for a slow-paced and enjoyable lifestyle. South Village has collaborated with the city government multiple times, promoting various cultural projects that have truly elevated cultural tourism to another level. I was impressed by their dedication and commitment to enriching the cultural experience for visitors.
For instance, the “North Region International Spotlight Project” promoted by the Tourism Bureau focuses on “In-depth Cultural Tourism of North Taiwan’s Chinese Community Life and Culture” as its theme. They select a specific region and spend a considerable amount of time carefully exploring interesting stories, unique shops, distinctive local connections, and refined cultural aspects. They then connect the dots to create a “cultural map” that they believe will most appeal to visitors from other places.
They diligently search for cultural depth and allow the people of the region to share their own stories and express their cherished life values, such as slow living, low-carbon lifestyle, and cultural heritage. They compile these experiences into a “Traveler’s Handbook,” presenting the most authentic human sentiments and daily life of the area to the tourists.
South Village is also the executing unit for the “Taipei Cultural Passport” program launched by the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs. In just two months, they organized free guided tours and activities about Taipei culture every Saturday and Sunday. The speakers are experts from various fields, covering a wide range of topics, from history, architecture, and traditional crafts to contemporary culture. For example, they have artists showing you graffiti in Ximending, friends from cycling clubs taking you on a bike tour to Tamsui, Shu Guozhi discussing calligraphy and painting in the southern part of the city, historians guiding you to visit the residences of famous figures and directors of bookstores leading you on a literary stroll. Additionally, there are numerous workshops on activities such as playing the guqin, tasting local snacks, paper-cutting, puppetry, and tea appreciation, among many others.
These activities persist in being more than just one-way teaching; they take to the streets, allowing participants to personally experience the city’s culture. It’s as if every little aspect of daily life provides a glimpse into the pulse and cultural origins of the place. With government leadership and culturally sensitive efforts from private organizations, they have systematically and thoughtfully connected these cultural elements within just two months.
Sharing a few of my observations, and what I want to emphasize is quite simple: Promoting culture is no longer just about aesthetics and leisure; it is also tied to economic and the core of competition between cities.
Indeed, we live in an era of city-to-city competition, where neighboring cities constantly strive to progress. Innovation becomes the key – innovative thinking to address urban management issues, leading lifestyle values, fostering diverse cultural atmospheres, and preserving and revitalizing their cultural essence. Cities must embrace these elements to stay ahead in the competition.
To win in the competition, relying solely on extensive construction or consumerism is no longer sufficient. While these may temporarily boost the economic growth, they fail to provide a place with its most attractive aspect: its unique style. To stand out, a city must focus on cultivating its distinct identity through innovative ideas, cultural richness, and a strong sense of community. These elements contribute to a city’s lasting appeal and magnetism.
A person without a soul is no different from a dried fish; similarly, a city without cultural heritage may seem bustling on the surface, but it lacks depth and substance. Relying solely on a consumer-driven, retail-oriented tourism model prevents us from defining our city in a meaningful way. The entire city ends up serving the profit and sales volume of a few large corporations, perpetuating a cycle of exorbitant rent increases that primarily benefit landlords. Moreover, if economic shifts occur, this fragile economic model will collapse like a dangerous building in an instant.
This is a simple yet often forgotten truth: in today’s world, we must move beyond the narrow focus on production and commercial value and prioritize a city’s attractiveness and cultural appeal. It all comes down to bold innovation, and the foundation of innovation lies in understanding different aspects of our city, organizing, documenting, and revitalizing the most captivating people and elements. Continuously exploring inward enriches the city’s essence and extends to various domains, such as tourism, urban design, and cultural industries.
In this regard, cultural tourism takes on a new mission. It is the most direct way for us to consolidate and explore our own stories, showcasing the most interesting, authentic, and charming aspects of our city to visitors from outside. This not only generates economic value but also actively defines our city in various domains. In this aspect, Hong Kong is notably lagging behind.
Do we lack relevant experts? No, we don’t. Are there no storytellers? There are, but not enough. Do we lack the manpower to organize and thoughtfully present local stories? There are many willing individuals.
Is it a systemic issue? Is it because there’s no cultural bureau? I believe the key lies not in the existence of a cultural bureau, but in whether the elite who hold administrative power, lead the tourism industry, and control economic resources possess a cultural vision to examine tourism, conservation, and economic policies. This way, Hong Kong can avoid falling behind in this era of competing cultural soft power.
My idea is simple: Hong Kong needs to shape its tourism from a humanistic perspective, allowing visitors to experience a more layered Hong Kong. This way, we can rediscover our city and help the younger generation understand its complex and multifaceted nature, connecting them to different aspects of its past and present to foster a sense of belonging. Achieving this goal requires private organizations to find sustainable operational models, maintain a dedicated team, and actively explore and organize local stories, traditions, and cultural heritage into engaging and enjoyable experiences. In my vision, this is the future of tourism development.
A civil society cannot rely on the government for help because bureaucrats are not adept at thinking outside the box or breaking free from economic constraints. While no one can deny the economic value of inbound consumption to Hong Kong, please stop viewing it as the ultimate savior of the city. This mindset is slowly eroding our drive for innovation and is diminishing Hong Kong, leading to the perception that “this city is dying.” We need to move beyond the narrow focus on consumption and find new ways to revitalize and innovate for the future of our city.
We look forward to a city with more style and allure. Because, truth be told, we are no longer just passersby; Hong Kong is our city.