Author: Adam Hopkins, Francesca Chang
Photographer: Yenyi Lin, Samil Kuo, Taiwan Scene, Mutsumi Saito, ICRT, Craig Ferguson, Yenping
Taipei, a cosmopolitan, open-minded and multicultural city, is home to thousands of expatriates from all over the world. Being one of the few capital cities on the planet where life has been considered safe over the last year or so, Taipei is a place where many foreign residents, who were perhaps only planning to be here briefly, have decided to stay for a little longer, if not permanently. TAIPEI sat down with six of Taipei’s most talented foreigners, all from different parts of the world, all here for different lengths of time, to talk about their lives in the city, their work, and what they like so much about calling Taipei home.
Originally from Exmouth, a port town in England’s southwest, Tom Rook is an artist who’s been living in Taipei for the last decade. He got the idea of moving to Taiwan when fellow travelers he met on his trip to India during university vacation introduced the country to him. “Throughout my last year of university, I made plans to move and worked out how to do it,” he tells TAIPEI. “I found a job through an agency called Reach to Teach, moved, and then never went back.”
Nowadays, Rook is an artist specializing in producing large 3D maps and drawings of urban areas. “I’ve been working full-time as an artist for the last few years,” he says. “Usually these [the places he draws] are places in Taiwan. I both draw places as they are now and also use old photos to recreate cities as they were in other times.” His work has been displayed in galleries all over Taipei and Taiwan.
Having been in the city for ten years, Rook has had plenty of time to explore Taipei and appreciate different aspects of the city. “Usually, I like walking around the area around Wanhua Train Station (萬華車站) and parts of Datong north of Taipei Bridge (台北橋). Both areas are yet to see the gentrification the rest of the city has gone through. Many of the few remaining Qing Dynasty (清朝, 1636 A.D. – 1912 A.D.) buildings in the city are in those areas,” he says, displaying his passion for older architecture and examples of structures that take you back in time. For Rook, the city’s older areas are one of the best parts of Taipei, giving a glimpse into yesteryear, offering a striking juxtaposition between old and new. Other places to experience “old” Taipei include the popular Dadaocheng (大稻埕), while lesser known gems are Qingtian Street (青田街) in Daan District and Sisinan Village (四四南村) in Xinyi District.
Over the last 15 years, Joe Henley, from Saskatchewan, Canada, has made a name for himself in Taipei as a journalist, an author and a musician. A freelance writer, he’s written for the likes of National Geographic Channel, Taipei Times, South China Morning Post, and Al Jazeera, while his musical endeavors have seen him play gigs all across Taiwan, as well as further afield in cities across Asia and even in Finland.
“Now my band is called Dharma, it’s a Buddhist death metal band with a nun in the band doing backup vocals,” the Canadian tells us. “Lately we’ve been getting quite a bit of attention. Because we have a nun in the band and we do metal, there’s a curiosity factor. We’re doing lots of festivals around Taiwan.” The band’s most recent Taipei gig came at Taipei Veggie Fest (台北素食生活節) as part of Earth Day celebrations back in April. “We want to tour overseas, but obviously we can’t right now.”
Having been here for a large chunk of his life, Henley loves so much about Taipei. “It’s a safe, ridiculously convenient, and dynamic place to live. It’s one of the few places I’ve been in the world where you can be downtown shopping, and less than a half hour later be up in the mountains, hiking or enjoying a cup of tea.”
Aside from these great features, Henley has a particular soft spot for the Ximending (西門町) area, particularly Jack’s Studio (杰克音樂), a recording/rehearsal space where his band practices. “It [Ximending] changes a lot: it’s always growing and it’s quite a progressive space for art. A lot of good record shops like Chia Chia Records (佳佳唱片) are in that area, and there’s street performers of all kinds: dancers, rappers, skateboarders. It’s a cool dynamic. It’s very alive.” Another great place to see people dancing and performing is Taipei Cinema Park (台北市電影主題公園) where you can also see awesome examples of graffiti art.
Hailing from Japan’s Gunma Prefecture, Mutsumi Saito has been in Taipei for two years. Having previously studied abroad at Taipei’s Soochow University (東吳大學) for a semester and having worked in Sendai (northeast Japan) promoting Japan as a tourist destination to Taiwanese visitors, he took the plunge and moved to Taipei to start his own business. “I own a small company,” he tells TAIPEI. “We do two things: promoting travel in Japan to Taiwanese and marketing travel to Taiwan that targets Japanese travelers in particular.”
Two years in and Saito has adapted to life in Taipei pretty well, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing. “When I first arrived, I didn’t speak Chinese too well. I still recall the day I had to sign my tenancy agreement with my landlord, but everything on the paper was all Greek to me. That was scary!” There are also differences in ways people in Taiwan do business compared with in Japan, which still presents him with some troubles from time to time. “We [Japanese] tend to have everything well-organized ahead of time and follow a plan, but many Taiwanese clients we work with prefer starting first and making changes throughout the duration of the project. That is something I’m having trouble adapting to.”
An outdoorsy person, Saito loves living in Taipei. “As a jogger, running around Taipei Arena (台北小巨蛋) or along the riverside park near my place in Dazhi (大直) is something I do very often,” he says. For many runners like Saito, the fun of jogging in Taipei is that the routes are never limited to the city streets, but can also be extended to riverside parks to enjoy nice views. “I also love the Yangmingshan (陽明山, Mt. Yangming) area as I’m into hot springs and hiking.” Before the COVID alert was raised, a hike in Yangmingshan National Park was a must for Saito when visiting Beitou (北投), a hot spring area at the foot of Yangmingshan. “Beitou is always the top choice to me and most Japanese hot spring lovers,” Saito adds.
Prashantha Lachanna/South Africa
Prashantha Lachanna, better known as “Chef Prish” in Taipei, is a contemporary raw vegan chef. Hailing from Johannesburg, South Africa, Chef Prish arrived in Taipei in 2006 with the intent to stay on the island for one year teaching English. One year turned into 14 years, as Taipei allowed her to pursue her passion and turn her cooking into a full-time career.
“Taipei has allowed me to do everything I wanted to do, no matter what it was,” the chef tells TAIPEI, attributing a big part of this freedom to the “openness, curiosity, and kindness in Taiwanese customers.” After feeling the positive, physical and mental benefits of a vegan diet, she decided to focus on vegan dishes, turning her passion for food and health into a full-time career as a destination restaurant owner and entrepreneurial vegan chef. “There are so many directions you can take with food & beverage here. And the Taiwanese market is open-minded and always eager to learn.”
She is now thriving in Taipei as a well-known private caterer, workshop speaker, and owner of Vegan Yumz, an online business delivering gourmet vegan snacks. “With natural ingredients, you can do so many iterations of dishes from simple comfort food to fine dining. Ultimately, you have the peace of mind knowing that they bring healing to your body.”
One of Chef Prish’s favorite places in Taipei is Fuzhoushan Park (福州山公園), a hiking trail within walking distance from her home and is seen by many as a great alternative to Xiangshan (象山, Elephant Mountain), offering a view of Taipei 101 and the cityscape without the crowds. She is also fond of Whitestone Gallery Taipei (白石畫廊・台北) in Neihu (內湖), citing its cathedral-like, fluid and flowing interior is the most beautiful interior space she’s ever seen.
Growing up in California, International Community Radio Taipei (ICRT) news anchor Trevor Tortomasi’s relationship with Taipei stems back to before he was even born. His parents, both American, got married here, having moved over when his mother got a job in Taipei teaching. “我是西班牙文老師!” (I’m a Spanish teacher) he laughs, mocking his mother’s limited Chinese that she introduced to him as a child. As far from fluent as it was, it left an impression on him as he picked up the odd useful words like 大 (da, big) and 小 (xiao, small), which inspired him to take Chinese classes during high school and then study abroad at National Taiwan University (國立台灣大學). All of these ultimately resulted in him having spent the last ten years calling Taipei home.
Tortomasi joined ICRT last year and wasted no time in throwing himself into the role. “I edit the news and read some of it on the air, but a bigger part of my job is handling the podcasts that the radio station produces,”he says. He works meticulously to edit and put together quality audio and visual content that is broadcast across Taiwan and online, and is proud to work at an iconic Taipei institution that has brought joy to many listeners over the years.
Not always wanting to be cooped up in the studio, Tortomasi is a particular fan of Taipei’s riverside parks. “I used to live in Guting (古亭), about a ten-minute walk from the river. Sometimes I’d take my bike, sometimes I’d take my unicycle. I’d go for runs; I would have hangout days with friends. I love the feeling of knowing I could just follow this park all the way to the ocean and then back to Taipei. It’s a nice feeling.” Though the pandemic temporarily keeps people from going out at the moment, being able to access nature and the great outdoors is still one of the reasons for Tortomasi to fall in love with Taipei. A mix of urban and natural, the city is perfect for those who want to live their life in the hustle and bustle of a metropolis while still having the option to get away from it all at a moment’s notice.
Priya Lee Lalwani/India
If you were to hear her speak Chinese before hearing her story, you’d be forgiven for considering Priya Lee Lalwani a Taipei native. Born in India and growing up in Germany and Nigeria, she moved here in 1987 when her father got a teaching job at Taipei’s Tatung University (大同大學), where she later earned a degree and made many good memories of starting a life here. “I’ve been here longer than a lot of people I work with and meet,” Lalwani laughs. “I’ve really seen Taipei change over the years. I’ve been here since when there was no MRT. I was here when paper tickets were still used on buses.”
Lalwani runs her own translation and consulting business. She’s taken on a variety of fascinating jobs in Taipei, including interpreting for the Taipei mayor and MC‘ing in the annual Indian Cultural Festival (印度文化節). “There are so many similarities between Taiwan and India, so I’ve been active in promoting Indian culture in Taiwan.”
Spending more than half of her life in Taipei, Lalwani is proud to call the city home. “I like everything about it,” she smiles. “The people are so nice; it’s a convenient place for transportation now, [which] is great. It’s a great place for foreigners to live. It’s got a bit of everything.”
Many foreign residents are quick to praise Taipei for its convenience, whether it be public transportation, the abundance of convenience stores, or English-language infrastructure at places like the immigration office.
Both of Lalwani’s children were born in Taipei and she enjoys exploring the city with them. “In fifth grade, my daughter did a project to write a tourism and travel booklet about Zhongshan and the areas nearby. She talked about the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (台北市立美術館). “We went and explored the area together. It was such a nice feeling, mother and daughter going around Taipei Story House (台北故事館) and also to Confucius Temple (台北市孔廟).”
As Lalwani attests, Taipei is also a great place to raise a family. It is safe, clean and there are many museums and sites of interest where children can learn and explore.
A friendly reminder from TAIPEI during the COVID-19 restrictions. During the pandemic, please try to stay home if possible. When going out, please wear a mask and follow the epidemic prevention regulations.