Pining in HK for fresh Taipei air

by Joshua Samuel Brown, Apr 24, 2006 | Destinations: Taiwan / Taipei

Had someone suggested to me in 1994 that in 2006 I'd be pining for the clean air of Taipei, I'd have suggested they pay a visit to the Mackay Hospital psychiatric ward. I'd even have paid their cab fare.

1994 was the year I first came to Taipei. Though I found myself enamored of the city's food, culture and chaotic energy, I was sure that the noxious air would be the death of me if I hung around too long. Over the city hung a perpetual blanket of the collective daily belchings of millions of poorly-tuned motor scooters mixed with the black exhaust of buses. Still, I loved Taipei, warts and all, though I spent as much time on the edges of it as possible.

1994 was also the year I first visited Hong Kong. Because of perpetual bureaucratic difficulties, for a number of years I had to make regular visa trips to that city. I remember well deplaning at Kai Tak Airport every sixty days and taking long, greedy breaths of what seemed to my jaded lungs at the time to be reasonably clean air.

Fast forward to 2006: Though still deeply attached to Taiwan, a number of factors caused me to move my base of operations in 2002. I currently live on Lamma Island, a small, automobile-free community popular with Hong Kongers looking for a respite from the city's perpetual din and pollution. I spend a lot of time at the Green Cottage, one of Lamma's friendliest outdoor cafes, writing over double espressos and staring out at the omnipresent gray mass that hangs over the Pearl River Delta, and pining for the now relatively clean air of Taipei.

Is Hong Kong's air that much worse than it was a decade ago? Is Taipei's that much better? The answer on both counts, to Taiwan's credit and Hong Kong's rising alarm, is a resounding yes.

Taipei's transformation had begun before I left. As I saw--or smelled--it, the cleanup began in 1997, when the authorities got serious about enforcing environmental standards. Subsequently, most of the city's squid bikes--so called for the inky black trail left in their wake--were either fixed or sent to the scrap heap. Taipei began breathing easier.

In 1999, the Xindian-to-Danshui section of Taipei Metro was completed. Overnight, a vast chunk of Taipei residents were transformed from scooter-riding maniacs to strap-hanging commuters, and the city breathed even easier. In 2000, leaded gasoline was taken off the menu at filling stations, and the whole island let out a collective sigh of relief. Since then, things have gotten incrementally better.

That these changes should have occurred when they did was only natural. In developing nations, quality of life tends to take a distant backseat to earning a living. But when the scales tip, as they had in Taiwan, people tend to wake up to the reality that money not only can't be eaten but can't cure asthma, either.

This is a lesson that people in Hong Kong have taken to heart, but here, the solution isn't so simple. Though nominally masters of their own house in local affairs, the territory sits downwind of the largest industrial center on the planet, over which the territory has no control. For centuries, Hong Kong has benefited from its auspicious position at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta. That this position is now an environmental liability presents a bitter irony.

Many expatriates are leaving Hong Kong, citing an increasingly poor quality of life and a corresponding rise in bronchial ailments. Taipei, the same city in which I once choked, is increasingly being seen as a better option. Tamara, a Canadian friend, teaches art and English at a prestigious Hong Kong school, but the increasingly foul air blanketing Fragrant Harbor--the meaning of the Chinese name Hong Kong--has taken much of the fragrance out of what should be a dream job.

"The kids are coughing, I'm coughing. It really makes me question whether it's worth it or not to stick around," she says. "Do you think Taipei American School might need an art teacher?"

Another friend of mine, John, is a doctor whose job has taken him periodically to Taipei for over a decade. His experience in the mid-1990s was the mirror opposite of mine. While I was heading from Taipei to Hong Kong looking forward to a few days of cleaner air, he was flying north, dreading Taipei's then-pervasive cocktail of exhaust fumes. He agrees with me that the difference between Taipei's air quality then and now is like night and day.

Still, for business reasons, he and I are both stuck in Hong Kong coughing under a cobalt sky, pining for what Taipei offers and Hong Kong sorely lacks--good vegetarian food, Peitou's hot springs and, of course, a breath of fresh air.

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This Article originally ran in the April 7, 2006 Taiwan Journal.

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