I arrived in Taipei in late June of 2015 to begin my sabbatical leave and my Fulbright research focusing on the “sharing city,” part of a phenomenon that is going on worldwide. From Europe to Asia, activities such as food sharing, co-working, and all forms of commoning are redefining social relationships in cities as well as how urban spaces can be used, activated, and transformed. Specifically, I am interested in how these activities are organized and by whom, as well as the broader implications for city-making.
This time around, my research approach was quite simple. I happen to know quite a few colleagues in Taipei who are working on those projects and have many connections to other individuals and groups. With a handful of initial tips, I started to contact and interview a few people who then introduced me to a few more. Those contacts then suggested even more connections and leads.
Facebook also serves as an important research tool for me. Taiwan apparently has one of the highest rates of Facebook usage in Asia. Facebook, or, as Taiwanese prefer to call it, FB, is indispensable nowadays not only for staying connected with distant friends but also for everyday communication, including sharing events and happenings. As I Facebook-friended my interviewees, my wall was soon flooded with activities and events around the city.
“Liking” some of them caused many more interesting groups and projects to appear on my wall, along with the activities and events that they are organizing. Events include sharing meals with migrant workers, cooking for the homeless, picnicking, neighborhood tours, etc. I also started to receive invitations to some of these events. Since they tend to happen on weekends, my weekend schedule filled up quickly. At events, I met both organizers and participants and learned more about these individuals and their projects.
I last conducted research in Taiwan fifteen years ago, as part of my dissertation research. That was long before the age of social media, and today’s methodology would have been inconceivable back then.
Another major difference this time is the level of self-organized creativity and entrepreneurship that I am witnessing among the younger generation of people. Unlike many in their parents’ generation for whom career jobs were more widely available, young people these days are quick to start new businesses as well as new social enterprises with the greater common good in mind. Even those with regular jobs, perhaps bored with their routines, are forming groups to either explore social issues and solutions or just band together based on shared interests.
A couple of examples are in order --
Do You a Flavor is a group of young people interested in helping marginalized social groups in Taipei. The idea for the group started during the spring 2014 Sunflower Movement, when they helped manage public donations of supplies. Instead of letting surplus perishable food go to waste, they distributed it to the homeless at Longshan Park. Their experience with the homeless there inspired them to start the venture. Having mapped scavenger routes in Taipei and organized food donation and meal-sharing, Do You a Flavor has recently been working on developing products for street vendors that connect with local organic producers.
9Floor is a network of so-called co-living apartments in Taipei, started by a group of young people (some of them still students). Currently featuring nine locations, mostly in prime city center locations, 9Floor provides a relatively affordable place to live for students and young working people who are interested in alternative living arrangements. Tenants share the use of a kitchen and bathroom. Their operations costs are offset by renting the living room out as co-working spaces during the day and by keeping some rooms for short-term leases at a higher rent through Airbnb. 9Floor also hosts various events and programs, including shared meals with migrant workers organized by One-Forty, a social startup that also offers business lessons to migrant workers so that they can start their own businesses when they return home.
Activities like these are not limited to Taipei, and organizers are not only young people. During my stay in Taiwan, I was fortunate to be invited to speak at events in different cities. I used those opportunities to explore what was happening locally and to meet with people behind those projects.
For instance, at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien, I met up with Professor Yu-Jun Gu, an education faculty member who more than ten years ago started a program to help local youths in Fengtien Township. Begun as a sort of a tutoring and youth development program, Prof. Gu and her staff have since expanded their activities to eight locations throughout the township. These programs include Wu Wei House (五味屋) a weekend secondhand store run by the youths and stocked with nationwide donations. Operating in a similar manner are a clothing boutique, a community library, and a guesthouse for tourists.
In the port city of Kaohsiung, I visited a co-working/living space called Tsohuei Space (作伙), run by group of young entrepreneurs. By sharing the same work and living space, they help each other with all aspects of running startups. They also host talks and events to build a community of like-minded young people. Many creative ideas and much energy is generated in the process of working together rather than in isolation, leading to new ventures that included organized tours for tourists and locals to explore the less-known parts of the city.
In the rural township of Meinung, I met Yuping Chu, the young owner of a small independent bookstore called Bookstore Around (有間書店). Located on the same street as Meinung’s many famed rice noodle (板條) shops, Bookstore Around is much more than a bookshop. On weeknights, when there is little else to do in the rural area, young people gather here for book talks and various other events, or just to meet up. Chu feels that although many young people are now interested in returning to rural areas, the environment of the rural area is not friendly to young people. The bookstore serves as a refuge and a gathering place.
In addition to these planned visits, other cases arose serendipitously. In November, a prospective doctoral student and I met up at ACGT Apartment near National Taiwan University, which happened to be owned by an acquaintance that I hadn’t seen in years. Located on an upper floor of a small apartment building facing an alley, ACGT Apartment looks like one of the many hipster cafes near the university, frequented by students and young people. Unlike most of the nearby cafes, however, ACGT is actually an extension of a fashion design studio that occupies the floor above. With the additional space, ACGT opened a café space so that staff could share meals and hold events and workshops. With an excellent view overlooking a quiet residential neighborhood, the apartment has gradually become a popular place to hang out.
These are only a few of the recent activities, places, and initiatives in Taiwan that have forged new networks between individuals, generated creative actions, and mobilized additional resources that would not have occurred in traditional social and spatial arrangements. Social media has obviously played an important role in many of these efforts. But, more importantly, these cases are driven by people’s desire for change and their pursuit of a more generous and open lifestyle. They form niches of freedom and social energy that find expressions against a society and urban environment dominated by commercial development and consumerism.
If you have a chance to visit Taiwan in the near future, I encourage you to check out some of these places and/or their activities (in order of appearance here in this essay):