Monday, April 22, 2013

Reinventing Kaohsiung (Business Traveller Asia-Pacific)

For much of Taiwan’s postwar history, Kaohsiung wasn’t so much lagging behind as written off. Business visitors described the oceanside city as irredeemably polluted, saying it had the sprawl and congestion of Taipei but little of the capital’s cuisine and none of its cultural attractions.

Until the late 1990s they were mostly right. An early sign of the city’s betterment was Love River changing colour. Even before Taiwan made the shift from authoritarianism to democracy, public demands that something be done about the smelly, tar-black waterway were too loud to ignore.

Sewage plants are one reason why Love River [pictured left] now has a much healthier hue, but ecological engineering techniques also played a role: so that the water’s edge would take on a more natural appearance, the river’s banks were covered with coconut-fibre matting in which aquatic plants could take root, but which will eventually decompose. The fact that many of the city’s nastiest industries have migrated to the Chinese mainland has helped. Kaohsiung’s sky, like its river, is bluer than it used to be. 

In late 2010, Kaohsiung City merged with the surrounding county, increasing the population to 2.8 million. The municipality now encompasses many rural districts, up to and including the south face of Mount Jade (Yushan), East Asia’s highest mountain. But even before the reorganization, urban Kaohsiung managed to go from way behind Taipei in terms of green space per resident to slightly ahead. It’s little wonder that "the general impression of Kaohsiung has taken a 180-degree turn," to quote a mid-2012 article in CommonWealth, one of Taiwan’s most respected Chinese-language publications.

Kaohsiung Software-based Technology Park (KSTP) is central to government efforts to wean the region from declining heavy industries. Established in 2005 on land formerly belonging to Taiwan’s state-owned oil company, the park quickly signed up Foxconn as a tenant. But the manufacturing giant had no plans to make iPads in Kaohsiung. Rather, it’s developing a cloud-computing centre.

The authorities hope KSTP will do in the 21st century what Kaohsiung’s export-processing zones did in the 1970s: attract foreign investment and know-how which can boost the economy and create jobs. The image of thousands of women leaving export-processing zones at the end of each shift on bicycles (in the 70s) or motorcycles (in the 80s and 90s) is part of Taiwan’s collective memory, but not a scene likely to be repeated, thanks to the progress made in public transport.

Kaohsiung’s mostly underground rapid-transit system, the KMRT, has two lines and 36 stations compared to Taipei’s 10 lines and 97 stations. Daily passenger numbers are a tenth of Taipei’s, which means you’ll almost always find a seat...

This article appears in the April issue of Business Traveller Asia-Pacific, a magazine published in Hong Kong and distributed throughout Asia.

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