The sounds of Taiwan

Your spaceship is arriving at platform 2

August 2021

Arriving in a new place is sometimes like eating a meal while taking a fragrant bath in a concert hall. It’s a joy for the senses.

There’s so much that’s unfamiliar combined with so much that’s familiar, but unexpected.

It was the new sounds that were especially surprising when we arrived in Taiwan, and they continue to delight us today.

We had moved from Switzerland where the background to our days was filled with the sonorous echo of church bells, the less-pleasing wail of ambulance sirens and the regular swish of passing trams.

In Taiwan the first new sound we noticed was the gentle tune announcing the arrival of garbage trucks.

It’s getting closer……

You can also see a short video here (note the friendliness of the garbage man).

Rubbish collection is a big deal here. It’s not just that recycling is taken more seriously than anywhere else we know: people’s trash is also collected DAILY. To those living in the parts of the UK, where rubbish is collected once a month, that must seem like a typo.

It’s not. All our trash is taken away, pre-sorted, every day.

Recycling redefined

The Taiwanese approach to recycling is even more thorough than we experienced in Vienna, where it feels like there’s a recycling centre on every street corner, and off the scale compared what we saw in Switzerland.

Is that the Matterhorn?

In Switzerland, we found it almost impossible to get rid of anything. We would have to walk miles to recycle bottles and metal, and then miles in a different direction to recycle clothes and paper*.

Although everyone had an enormous 400kg annual waste allowance at the city recycling centre, the building was located in the middle of nowhere. Once you got there you discovered that the Swiss-German translation of “recycling” was “landfill”: everything you took to the ‘Recycling-Hof’, no matter what, was simply crushed and dumped.

Even the standard weekly rubbish collection in Switzerland proved difficult. For two weeks one summer our bin was deliberately ignored while all those around it were emptied. In the heat, the rotting contents gradually became something of a bio-hazard, forcing people to cross the street.

When we phoned to find out why were being wastracised, we discovered that a tiny registration number on the side of the bin, that we weren’t even aware of, had expired. In Switzerland, we learned, bin registration comes before public health.

With so much rubbish to get rid of, we also found that many environmentally challenged Swiss (the country ranks fifth in the global waste index) would simply drive across the border to dump their rubbish in Germany.

After a few years, we concluded that the money the Swiss were saving NOT collecting rubbish was being spent advertising to the rest of the world how environmentally responsible they are. How else to explain the mismatch?

An overture to begin each evening

In marked contrast, one of the highlights of each evening in Taiwan is the arrival of a small flotilla of garbage trucks, one for each type of waste. Their approach is heralded by an overture not unlike the tune played by an ice-cream van and it never fails to make us smile. All our neighbours come together as dusk descends, and chat about their day, each with their rubbish pre-sorted and stacked into shopping trolleys. It’s like a visit to the local market, only in reverse. They leave with their trolleys empty.

There are many other sounds that punctuate our days.

Every few mornings, we wake to the sound of our local cardboard man. Across the city, these people work the streets endlessly, collecting cardboard. Each rides a three-wheeled motorbike with a large frame to stack what they collect. No matter where you go in Taiwan, these motorcycles seem to have been made in 1940. They all produce the same plumes of blue smoke and never move faster than a walking pace, puttering along while the driver makes a long deep wah-ah-ah-ah-ah sound, accentuated by the bumps in the road. It’s a little like listening to the scream of someone who has fallen off a cliff, played 100 times slower than normal.

Every month, two men in a small blue truck do the rounds too, offering to do odd-jobs and repairs. A speaker plays a recorded list of what they offer: fixing window screens, repairing doors or drilling holes, for example. The voice on the recording is a bit like a high-pitched strangulated duck, which squawks the words, making them hard to understand. For months, our untrained ears couldn’t see why two burly men in a van filled with sheets of plywood, plastic cables, pots of glue and nails wanted to sell us papaya salad.

A world of laughter and a world of fear

Maji Meow takes a tumble

Buses also make us smile. Hurtling around a 60 degree bend at high speed and being flung bodily from one side of the bus to the other, perhaps dislocating a shoulder in an effort to hang on, we might discover that our stop is approaching. We’ll press the stop-request button, and in a second we are transported in our imagination to the spinning teacup ride of a children’s fun fair, as an electro-rendition of ‘It’s a Small World, After All‘ plinks from the bus’s speakers.

As we approach our stop at full speed, the driver’s foot still flat on the accelerator with 100, 70, 50, now 20 meters to go before the bus risks crashing right into our stop, we often find ourselves bobbing our heads and mouthing the words, as impending death looms: “It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears, it’s a world of hope and a world of fear…..”

Our favourite sounds though are made by the trains.

As on most subway systems around the world, the carriages in Taipei play sounds when the doors open and close. Here though, the stations also play a cheery tune as the train approaches. In Taipei there’s a different tune for each subway line, while the southern city of Kaohsiung has a different tune for each station. The bullet trains have their own music compilations too.

In every case, the tunes never seem to get tiresome, no matter how often you hear them. Rather, they are uplifting. They make us smile and feel relaxed, knowing that the metro system cares about us and our journey. On the trains, and in the stations, posters also show a small cartoon cat, called Maji Meow, who is always there to remind us to think about the needs of others, or to remember not to look at our phones when we get on and off trains, and all this in a very touching, non-pushy, way.

For the geeks among you, here are our four favourite metro line tunes.

The RED line is the one we like best. It’s very hard to say why.

The ORANGE line sounds like it was written by a visiting space alien.

The GREEN line is a funky jazzy Chopin-like piano piece.

The BLUE line is also an adapted piano recital.

*That should say plastic. Paper was collected once a month, as long as it was neatly wrapped in the mulitcoloured string which could only be bought from the Post Office. If we used any other string or the package was not tied neatly enough, the bundle was left by the roadside.

Images: Taiwan-tales and Dieter G and DesignNPrint, Pixabay. Truck sound from FreeSound, Sonnyestufa