Love Note #12: The Taipei MRT

Public transportation may be a common service in many cities worldwide, but each system is distinct. There’s the sort’ve laughable, nolstagia-inducing one that screeches through Boston, Massachusetts, clanking stubbornly along and painfully in denial about its age because God forbid anyone tells it what it can’t do. And the one that squawks through the New York City underground – its empty seats lined with discarded copies of the Metro New York and the occasional homeless individual who’s converted three seats into a temporary bed. Moscow’s system boasts painted murals and stained glass windows and Singapore’s is just as immaculate as you’d expect it to be.

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Taipei’s subway system, known by locals as the MRT, is often touted as the best if not one of the best in the world. Its neat, color-coded lines are also numbered, alleviating any confusion among novice patrons figuring out the routes. The stations are announced in clear, crisp voices – I have memories of my brother and I trying to emulate the announcers’ tones whenever we competed against each other to name as many red-line stations as we could in order from Tamsui, to what was then the last red-line station, Guting.

The metro’s five main routes stretch and extend throughout Taipei and to some parts of the neighboring New Taipei City, its rhythm matching the ebb and flow of people commuting through the city for work, for after-work drinks and dinner dates, for school and then later, cram school.

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For a few moments every day, people are taken out of their individual apartments, their individual cubicles at work, their individual desks at school, and packed together in one place. It’s here that the normal interactions among people in Taiwan are viewed in a microcosm. Amid a chorus of Candy Crush pings and the repetition of the all-too-familiar hand swiping motion of people checking their Facebook or Line, there’s the blossoming relationships amongst young high school students and elderly women greeting each other while lugging their grocery carts. There are new parents looking lovingly at their babies while others coo and wiggle their fingers playfully, as well as young students on their way home from school, overloaded with black, irregularly shaped instrument cases and their textbooks. There’s the collective scrambling across the platform at Chiang Kai-shek station as everyone rushes to make the connection between the red and green lines, although conductors patiently wait to make sure everyone’s onboard before closing the doors.

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Like any public space, it’s been the site of the beginning of many of relationships – my own parents met on a bus in Taipei – and the site of many breakups. After all, it’s here that the personal becomes public. Where people cry and display their grievances out in the open. Some talk openly, whether on their phones or amongst themselves, about their lives for all to hear. In this way, the personal dramas of our individual lives suddenly become shared. 

The MRT is a shared space, and the deadly stabbings on the subway a couple years ago was a reminder of just how shared our space is, and consequently, how shared that tragedy was. The MRT is the vehicle that ties everyone together – whether they’re going to the market, to work, to the office, to see a friend or to home at night. It’s become integral to how we understand ourselves as a collective identity in Taipei, reinforcing the fact that we’re all connected by shared experiences and a history, as well as by the train system that flows through our city. 

By Calin Brown

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