Wednesday, October 30, 2013

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The truth about New Taipei City

10/30/2013 Taiwan Explorer

I've read an interesting article a few days ago, that quoted the former premier and former chairman of the DPP Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃) saying:
"New Taipei City must be more than just a bedroom community for commuters working in Taipei and urged local residents to help spur the city to bigger and better things."
It's not a city

Since I'm a resident of New Taipei myself, his statement left me scratching my head. Even though I'm sure Yu's intentions were noble, it sounds very odd to urge residents to do something instead of addressing the local and national governments who failed to "spur" what is since 2010 known as Taiwan's biggest city. Here's the truth, though: New Taipei City is not a city. It never was a city, and it never will be a city on its own. New Taipei has its own mayor and government, but in reality it's merely Taipei City's suburb combined with rural communities, that go way beyond the city limits.

What is New Taipei?

Today's New Taipei City (新北市) has its origins in the former Taipei County (臺北縣), which was established on January 16, 1946 by the ROC government, that took control of Taiwan right after World War II. The former county, which spanned over the exactly same area as today's "city," was officially renamed "New Taipei City" on December 31, 2010. Prior to the name change there was a small controversy about the Romanization of the Chinese name "新北市," which is pronounced Xīn Běi Shì, and literally means "New Northern City." A fraction of Taiwan independence leaning residents were against the proposed name Xinbei City, which is a combination of hanyu pinyin and English. This is what Chang Shu-feng (張淑芬), the director of Taiwan Pinyin League, has said back then:
"As a resident, I protest against Chou Hsi-wei's decision to change my hometown's name without seeking the residents' agreement. We do not want to use Hanyu Pinyin, which China uses."
I for one respect his stance, which is based on the fear of greater Chinese influence on Taiwan, but what made me really wonder a lot at that time was the fact that the majority of expats were seemingly for hanyu pinyin, and therefore championing the name Xinbei City. While I'm known to be critical of CCP's heavily flawed Chinese Romanization system, my argument against naming it Xinbei City has nothing to do with politics or romanization systems per se, but with the reality on the ground. Xinbei City would be wrong, because it would artificially create a city with a new separate identity from Taipei, an identity that as such doesn't exist. Taipei County as well as New Taipei have "Taipei" in their names, because they have always gravitated towards Taipei City: They grew and developed because of Taipei City, and they have always depended on Taipei City. So why attempt to hide this reality in the new name? Let's go even further: Why try to artificially create two different cities when in reality it's one city hacked in two? The decision was based on political considerations rather than what's best for the citizens of Greater Taipei, a metropolis of over 6 million. I was hoping at that time that the foreign community's focus would be rather the creation of a new city, not the creation of the new name. And why is it that Kaohsiung City and Taichung City merged with their counties at that time, but Taipei went in the completely opposite direction, and created two cities instead?

There's only one Taipei

Left: De jure. Right: De facto. Do you see two cities or do you see one? Source: Google Maps.

Everyone who merely glances over the map of Taipei will be surprised to hear that there are officially two cities in the Taipei basin, and the smaller one is completely surrounded by the bigger one. If New Taipei was a donut, Taipei would be its hole. Something's definitely not right here, because how can a city completely surround another city? Fact is, New Taipei is not an organically grown city, it's a pretty random entity consisting of 29 districts, has a population of 3.9 million, and an area of 2052 km2, that can be divided in 3 main groups:

1. Densely populated urban districts: Banciao, Zhonghe, Xindian, Sanchong, Xinzhuang, Tucheng, Yonghe, and Luzhou make up 69% of the whole New Taipei population, but they only take up 11.8% of the total area. They're located west and south of Taipei City, naturally separated by rivers Tamsui and Xindian, but in reality very well connected with bridges, highways, and subway lines. This is not only the most densely populated area in Taiwan, it's one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

2. Old Towns: Yingge, Sanxia, Tamsui, Jinshan, and Shenkeng are old cities and towns with their own identity, history, and specific charm. They're a bit outside of the core Taipei City/New Taipei urban area, but quite well connected with central Taipei. They have very little in common with the aforementioned densely populated urban districts.

3. Rural remote areas: Pingxi, Wulai, Pinglin, Shiding, Shuangxi, Shimen, Gongliao, and the rest are really rural, and quite far from the Greater Taipei's hustle and bustle. Some of these districts are closer to Keelung, Ilan and Taoyuan County than they are to Taipei. They make up 60% of New Taipei City's total area, but they only inhabit 7% of the overall population.

Based on this reality, does it really make sense to call New Taipei City a city?

There is hope for the future

At the end of 2012 there was much talk about merging Taipei with New Taipei (and even with Keelung), the discussion was mainly driven by the current mayor of New Taipei Eric Chu (朱立倫). Mayors of both cities seemed to have found a consensus, that this would be a great idea, and even the interior minister agreed. Check this video report from less than a year ago:

Taipei mayor Hau Lung-pin (郝龍斌) said following in January:
A merger among the three cities would be the inevitable outcome of close cooperation, however, the merger should be bottom-up. The three will merge once the timing is right, and that is one of the reasons why there isn't a timetable at present.
Eventual unification, and no timetable at present. Why does this sound familiar to me? So there is hope that Taipei (a de facto metropolis spanning over the Taipei Basin) will eventually get the official recognition that's long overdue. Of course there are concerns that come along with such merger (and the video addressed some of them), but I want to focus on the benefits. Here's my list of arguments for a merger of Taipei with New Taipei:

- Taipei with nearly 7 million people would gain on importance in the region.

- Such metropolis would attract investment, boost tourism, host more global events.

- One mayor is better than two: Easier decision making and implementation.

- Taipei City's bigger budget per capita could be used for developing areas of New Taipei.

- A more holistic and comprehensive approach to future development would be possible.

- An improved integration of the suburbs with the city core would be easier to achieve.

- No more second class Taipeiers: New Taipei's bad image would slowly disappear.

- Connecting Keelung with the Taipei Metro or Taiwan High-Speed Railways would be easier.

There wasn't much talk about this merger recently, but I'm sure it will be a topic at the next mayoral elections, and they are not far away. If you disagree with my opinion, or if you agree, feel free to discuss this topic in the comments, I'm interested to hear your arguments for, or against a merger. If you're here for the first time, check my Taipei Travel Guide to get a better understanding of how I see this city which I'm still very much fond of.