Hugging Trees in Taipei: A View from the Far East

On a recent trip to the Far East, the talk often returned to newspaper headlines on the investigation which found the potential carcinogen malachite green* in many fish and eel samples from the P.R. China. Discussion in Taiwan led naturally to a discussion of the eco-movement in Taipei. A city of 290,000 in 1930, Taipei now throngs with 2.6 million consumers seeking the good life. With personal income rising, the Taiwanese are finding the extra investment in organic foods more attractive.

Taiwan has faced challenges such as agricultural competition since becoming a WTO member and damage to agriculture from the typhoons that often pound the island, especially where erosion sensitivity is high, like in the betelnut plantations (the tree [pictured here] which yields a natural stimulant sold as "chinese chewing gum"--by young girls in micro-skirts and skimpy tops at the many glass booths behind flashing lights which line the busy streets--is blamed for depleting groundwater and shading out soil-stabilizing greenery). To help farmers make ends meet, the government originated the idea for urban dwellers to rent-a-tree. Weekend visits to one's personal tree to pick fruit or simply enjoy the natural beauty are the payback for the harried denizens of the "stone forest" as one Taiwanese friend refers to his city, and the repeated annual income is more reliable than a one-time recovery grant. Recently, the concept has merged with the rising biofoods demand, and residents of Taipei are setting up contracts with local farmers for a dedicated plot of land on which designated vegetables will be grown. Tending the garden is a good weekend's relaxation and an opportunity to collect the harvest; and for the overworked young executive who can't make it out to his garden, the farmer will tend the veggies--even shipping the produce into the client by DHL.

Next stop on our travellog is Singapore, the ultimate managed environment. Unfortunately, we must report that friends in the architecture and construction industy report no movement on the promising EDITT building previously reported on here.

Finally, business calls in Guangzhou, the city just several hours boat ride north of Hong Kong which epitomizes the industrial explosion in the P.R. China. We are happy to report visible progress in cleaning up the Pearl river so that it is once again an attractive destination for residents and tourists alike. However, although William McDonough claimed yesterday in a Washington Post article that the Chinese government has embraced the principles of green design, what one sees on the ground is bright, shiny, neon-flashing stores pumping cooled air into the hot, steamy night where the crowded consuming public brings to mind just how big a number 1.3 billion really is. That's 1.3 billion people, rapidly migrating to the urban environment and aspiring to lifestyles which rival Americans and Europeans in possessive drive. And this intrepid reporter's attempts to find an example of green building to visit resulted in a frustrated internet tour of dreams and plans, followed by a tramp into the heart of the real city, where real life is an eternal struggle for space and resources, including the eco-friendly but poverty-driven practice of scouring the garbage for any reclaimable value, and the aspirations of the government are to be found, as they say in Guangzhou, only by a long trip past tall mountains.

*Note: malachite green is now widely illegal, including in P.R. China, but was formerly used as a fungicide in fish farms among other things.