I grew up in Daxi (大溪), a small town in Taoyuan County, just south of Taipei. Taoyuan, a city most of us haven’t heard of except as a travel hub, where the airport happens to be located, has a special place in my heart.

When I was a little kid, going into the downtown area of Zhongli (中壢, or Chungli),was an adventure for me. Zhongli was where department stores with the latest toys from Japan were stocked, where I took my first piano lessons, where my parents took us to enjoy steak, Taiwanese style, on a sizzling plate. My father earned his master’s degree from Chung Yuan Christian University in Zhongli, and while he attended class I played with train sets in the university’s daycare center.

One particular memory I have is eating my first biscuit at KFC, right in front of Zhongli’s train station. The first bite was salty, with a doughy chew and hot steam warming my mouth. I squeezed the little bun and a sheen of butter glistened in the fluorescent light. The smell of artificial fryer oil filled the deliberately air-conditioned room—these were the markers of human achievement, of modernity, of America.  

Slice of the Times

They were a slice of the times, too. Zhongli was an important industrial center, home to warehouses, factories, and research facilities of Taiwanese enterprises from textiles and processed foods to electronic parts. During the 1980s Zhongli was a symbol of prosperity, a model of Taiwan’s rising middle class and increasing importance in the global marketplace. Of course, it was also the site of the Chungli Incident of 1977, one of the earliest mass protests of election tampering, and is now a landmark event on Taiwan’s road away from authoritarianism.

By the 2010s, the town has changed drastically, but some things remain the same. The main train station is still the third busiest in all of Taiwan’s local rail network, but instead of shuttling laborers from rural parts of Taiwan to work in Zhongli’s factories, it is now a hub for laborers from Southeast Asia. A new metro line connecting Zhongli to the High Speed Rail, the international airport, and Taipei is being finished up. Taoyuan is now a special metropolis, and the fastest growing of six major urban centers, including the fastest growing young population, in Taiwan.  

Almost as if celebrating this youthful energy, a video of street dancers in Taoyuan went viral on social media earlier this year, accumulating over 1.1 million views since it was posted in July.

The video was filmed in a single take, showing students from 40 high schools from northern Taiwan, dancing along the streets of the Zhongping Shopping District (中平商圈), a chic collection of local shops spanning several blocks in front of Zhongli Train Station.

Trends, Youth, Community Service

Our correspondent Darice Chang had a chat with Liu Bo-cheng (劉柏成), the president of the Zhongping Shopping District Development Association (中平商圈發展協會), who helped organized the video. Unlike the stereotypical old chamber of commerce president, Liu is only 24 years old, just graduated college and is still working on his graduate thesis paper.

Zhongping is where his family did business for a long time, and where he grew up. Many of the elders of the business community wanted to inject young blood into the neighborhood, and gave him a chance to lead the Development Association.

“The dance video came together naturally for us,” Liu explained, “since we regularly host student performances here on the street, like for high school bands or dancers.”

From the video, Zhongping seems to be the perfect watering hole for high school students, with beverage shops known as yaoyao stands and fashion forward boutiques sprinkled liberally throughout. But, as Liu explained, Zhongping is one of the oldest railway markets in northern Taiwan. Zhongli Station was a large transfer hub between Taipei and Hsinchu, the two major northern Taiwan urban centers since the 1890s. Over time, Zhongli became known for its “three treasures”: scythes from master metalsmiths, peanut candy, and beef noodles.

Liu said that many of the businesses in the area have been family owned for generations, and the social networks between people within the community are still strong. That’s why instead of staying in Taipei or leaving for the US, he chose to come back home to turn his hometown into something attractive to his generation.

Liu and his crew of young store owners and community volunteers got to work, and the results speak for themselves. Since the Zhongping Shopping District is situated between clusters of high schools, colleges, and cram schools, Liu focused on making the district “trendy, youthful, and focused on community service.” The area became akin to Ximending in Taipei, or Harajuku in Tokyo, albeit still much less well-known. As part of its commitment to community service and social responsibility, the Development Association mobilized 2.2 tons of supplies, primarily clothing collected through customized donation receptacles, to be donated to Myanmar. In addition, Liu has served on the Youth Council of Taoyuan’s Youth Affairs Bureau, the only regional level bureau in Taiwan dedicated to youth affairs.  

The Zhongping Shopping District has bigger challenges ahead. Zhongli has consistently been a migrant town, with the population makeup always mixing and shifting. Southeast Asian laborers and new immigrants are now an integral part of the city. Liu sees this as an opportunity:

“Because our clientele now includes new immigrants from Southeast Asia, our storekeepers and staff have no problem with English. Our menus and materials are mostly bilingual. Even Ximending in Taipei is not as English-ready as we are. This is a core strength of ours.

 

“In fact, my graduate thesis is on how our traditional business networks can become more integrated with the enclaves of new immigrants and their social networks. We should see them not just as laborers, but people who have needs in education and cultural expression as well.”  

With the airport being just a few stops away on the metro, Liu sees Zhongli, and the Taoyuan region as a whole, as having the potential to surpass Taipei as the most globally connected region in Taiwan. “If you’re flying into Taiwan, it’s much faster to come here than to go to Taipei.”

Youth in Taoyuan

At the end of the day, however, to realize that potential means the youth of today has to believe in that vision and stay to work for that vision.

We asked two high school students, Tseng Yun-huan from Yangmei High School, and Zuo Yuan-yu from The Affiliated Taoyuan Agricultural & Industrial Senior High School of National Taipei University of Technology, what they thought about the future. Where will they go when they graduate? Will they end up in Taipei or Silicon Valley? Or come back to Taoyuan and led the next wave of renaissance for their hometowns?

Both Tseng and Cho said they would want to see more of the world outside, such as go to Taipei or even go abroad, but they both want to eventually come back to Taoyuan, because this is where home is, where their friends are. Zuo says, “our pace here is slower, but Taoyuan is a good place.”

According to Taoyuan’s Chief of Youth Affairs Chen Chia-chun (陳家濬), that is the reason Taoyuan is the fastest growing and youngest urban area in Taiwan.

“We are the gateway to the rest of the world with the international airport here, and we are situated between the financial center of Taipei and the tech hub of Hsinchu. We are home to major universities and technical institutions, as well as the new Asia Silicon Valley development area is located within Taoyuan. Most importantly, we have our distinct lifestyle here and the cost of living is affordable.”

The Youth Affairs Bureau he leads is the only one of its kind in Taiwan. It provides funding for youth-led projects, hosts accelerator programs for young entrepreneurs, and gives the youth a way to be involved with policy making through the Youth Council.

Chen says that Taoyuan is developing its own cultural identity, based on traditional Hakka culture that exists in Taoyuan, but he hopes that “new immigrants from Southeast Asia will also call Taoyuan their homes.”

“For example, Tainan is the old capital, and Taipei is the political center. But as Taoyuanese, it’s our job to create the city we want to call home. I believe Taoyuan is the best place to live, it’s the best place for young people, and it’s just a beautiful city. That’s my vision.

 

“The best way to have the rest of the world discover us is for us to rediscover ourselves, find out what is unique about us, and perfect that which is unique about us.”

A Slow Train to Zhongli

In January this year, I took a slow train to Zhongli. As the train eased southwest out of Taipei, the afternoon sun cast a soft but persistent light on the palm trees outside the train window. I saw rocky cliffs filled with moss, grimey two-story buildings stained by car exhaust, and empty fields with dried husks. The train passed by several small road crossings, and little kids in school uniforms and yellow brimmed hats waited patiently to cross on their way home.

The train stopped in Zhongli, and I walked out the station, not knowing what to expect. I heard people speaking in rapid-fire languages that I did not recognize. Young men lingered around the plaza in front of the station, and a handful of young women dressed like they just came from a nightclub walked by, and disappeared into a KFC across the street.

Writing about the region of Taoyuan, for me, always meant nostalgia, but I can’t help but turn eyes to the future. I still don’t know exactly what kind of vision I see possible for my hometown. But the street dancers gave me reasons to hope, and along with president Liu of the Development Association and Chief Chen of the Youth Bureau, I can’t wait to see how Taoyuan will reinvent itself yet again.

(Feature photo from Street Dance in Zhongli)

 

Chieh-Ting Yeh

Chieh-Ting Yeh is the co-founder of Ketagalan Media. After working in think tanks and political parties in London and Taipei, he earned his law degree from Harvard. He has been a long time thinker of Taiwan's history, politics, and nationalism. He is currently based in Silicon Valley.