Living in a Ghost Town

Taipei, Taiwan

The pictures looked great online.  And having no knowledge of the terrain, we judged it not so far from the subway station.

Only 20 minutes away by bus, they said.

After living in small apartments for the past three and a half years, we were ready for an upgrade.  It was an unimaginable size for us, over 1,500 square feet, which in most Asian cities is a mansion.

Little did we know, after settling in, that we were living in a typical Chinese ghost town, developed one of those mainland developers starting with the letter ‘V’.

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In our building of 22 floors, we’ve counted about five families.  We see the same faces in the lobby.  A twin building next door to us, reserved only for owners, has one actual tenant, judging by the lights at night.

Inexplicably, about five of the lights come from homes with no curtains, whose owners just decide to keep their lights on for some reason.  Maybe to ward off ghosts, maybe to give the impression to prospective buyers that the community is not so deserted.

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I’ve wandered a lot of ghost towns and shopping centers in China over the past few years, and the thing that sticks out to me the most, is how quickly a development can be overtaken by nature.

Make no mistake, we are all here by the grace of the planet and not long after we’re gone, there will be no trace.  For an unmaintained building, the process might take less than a year, if that.

Next to us a set of villas have a plastered wall around them, literally whitewashing over the fact that they lie in a decrepit, dilapidated state, although you can glimpse the broken windows, missing walls, above them.

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But our twin buildings are pristine.  The staff who work here, outnumber the residents, and it results in an echo chamber of a residence where you are never really out of surveillance range.

Four children under the age of 10 live across forty-four floors of residences, and two of them walk to a school down the street.  And the whole way, from their exit out of our buildings, to the corner of the development, and finally to the converted villa that is their school, vigilant guards with walkie-talkies announce their progress.

Of course, it’s nice living here.  It’s serene.  When the weather is right, you can see almost the entire expanse of Taipei.  And sometimes when it’s cloudy below, it’s sunny up here.  Other times, the clouds envelop us, making it seem as if we’re literally floating.  And there are no problems with our building.  In fact, it’s like a 22-story hotel being maintained for just the ~20 of us.

All of it is maintained, but at what cost?

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where all this is being maintained profitably.

Especially since next door lays a work-in-progress, triplet of a tower that has been under construction for the past few years, where a single worker shows up several days of the week to operate a drill that reverberates loudly throughout the entire neighborhood, but is otherwise ineffectual.

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I can’t help but note that if this building were located anywhere else in China, where there was an actual market for this stuff, the whole building would be taken to completion from its present state, in a matter of weeks, if not days.

I have a problem with the way the media portrays China’s “ghost towns”, because a lot of the developments are in a state of waiting, built in advance of the demand.  Sometimes they actually do fill in over time, while sometimes they don’t.

But I’ve always had an underlying anxiety with isolation.  And this lays bare why.

Something so far from an urban center has great costs to maintain.  The cleaners and clerks commute here by scooter or bus.  The landscaping.  The maintenance of two minibuses an hour that service the residences.  It all seems fragile.  Because if for some reason the owner of the development decided one day to stop financing it, it would no doubt within a few years, look as if no one had ever lived here.

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Elements: Jiufen, Taiwan

Jiufen is an old mining town in Taiwan and is famous for a traditional old retail street.  The street is a market that winds down narrow alleys, giving it a souq-like atmosphere.

On the weekends, the amount of people visiting gives it a feel like you’re in Downtown Disney – packed full of people walking in either direction, not exactly leisurely.

But it’s famous for a reason.  The elevation and its placement on the hillside also gives you charming, wonderful vistas like this one.

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So much so, that it was reportedly an inspiration for Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.  You might see the resemblance.

What is the essential element of this place that gives it magic?

1.  The stairways and elevation changes give it a lot of charm.  You don’t know what’s around the corner, and you have a lot of views that are uncommon.

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2.  Red lanterns: lighting is huge, and by stringing these everywhere, basically it gives the night market a special glow.  Warm, inviting, a little magical.  Lighting can be a huge signature, and you can really see the difference here when you compare the market during the day versus the evening.  So simple.

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3.  Vibrant tenant mix.  I’ve consulted on a lot of projects where clients try to artificially create this kind of retail entertainment.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but usually where projects like this fail, is that everyone spends time on creating an incredibly fantastic, magical environment and less time on the actual substance of the place – it’s great to have spectacular surroundings, but what will people actually end up doing?

Shopping, eating, being entertained – and that is delivered by the individual tenants themselves.  Ensuring a vibrant, authentic, sometimes irreverent tenant mix is the absolute key.

If you really think about it, and decompose Jiufen into its elements, that last one is really the secret to its success.  There’s nothing so crazy about stringing up red lanterns, or narrow alleys.  But the reason it’s like Disneyland on a summer weekend, with a crush of people walking in either direction, is because of the combination of all three of those elements.

The other place I’ve seen this is in Hongyadong, in Chongqing, which is arguably more fantastic and magical looking than Jiufen.  You can take the whole sight of Hongyadong in, at a glance, but you can’t put the architecture or structures of it into any category.  You can’t even tell where it starts or stops, or what anything even is.  It’s hands down the craziest piece of real estate I’ve ever seen.  Below:

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Do yourself a favor and Google ‘hongyadong’.  It’s really one of the most insane structures I’ve ever seen.

And inside, it’s much of the same.  Chongqing is a hilly city, and you need to climb narrow winding stairs to get anywhere.  Once inside, you’re greeted by a crush of people, restaurants, shops, like you’ve arrived at a magical floating island.

Back to Jiufen.  Teahouses are one of the essential places to visit in Jiufen.  And there’s a lot to be said about Chinese teahouses.

This is the one we visited in Jiufen.

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The apothecary-like counter and cabinets holding a variety of teas, accessories, paraphernalia imbues the place with a special, bespoke touch.  You get the feeling they’re sifting through all these pots and bottles for the tea that you and you alone ordered, mixing it in the exact proportions right for you.  They possess an arcane knowledge of teas, the depths of which are mysterious and a world to be explored.

The teapots on the counter look industrious.  You get the feeling that something is always brewing 🙂

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The individual seat compartments are divided by dark woods and stone, and spaced at perfect intervals.  Solid, subdued materials surround you and invite quiet contemplation.

One day I’d like to develop such a place, but it’ll be one dedicated to chocolate.