How I became a fan of the Taipei Flora Expo

by on Wednesday, 23 February 2011 Comments

In late December 2010 I went to the Taipei International Flower Expo and had a good time.  There are a number of reasons as to why this was the case.  Please allow me to elucidate.

At this time my finance’s parents were visiting from Australia.  Her father is a horticulturalist by trade, and has an abiding and keen interest in flowers and trees.  He is also interested in innovative agricultural methods, such as permaculture. Their timing was fortuitous as it coincided with the Expo.  Not that the event would be hard to miss, running for close to six months.

Showing guests around town requires a bit of planning.  What are they are interested in?  What I am I interested in?  What do I actually know about this place?  After pondering these type of questions I was able to find a fortuitous common thread – the Taipei International Flora Exposition.

Residents of Taipei have long been aware of the Expo.  Security fences around building sites have been clad with promotional hanging flowers just as the subway system was festooned with posters of Taiwanese megastar Jay Chou ambling around the venue and other enticing tidbits – “The essence of gardening! Eco-friendly living!”  And so on. This was enough to pique my interest.  While not having much of a green thumb, I do appreciate a pleasant garden and am also partial to creative environmental solutions.  Taiwan is home to many tasteful gardens and cutting edge designers, hopefully the Expo would draw upon these resources.

In September 2010 I visited the much-hyped Shanghai World Expo.  In terms of sheer spectacle it was truly something.  Big, yes. Satisfying, well that depends on the person.  Despite some interesting bits and pieces (a futuristic building here, some flashy technology there) I could not escape the feeling that I was stuck in a living, breathing infomercial.  Which in itself is a unique, if somewhat shallow, experience.

Now it was Taipei’s turn to put on a show.  The flora expo would never be on the same scale as the World Expo.  This has been a theme in Taiwan over the last two years.  Beijing had the Olympic Games, Taipei had the Deaf Olympics.  Plus Kaohsiung had the World Games, where one could watch the world’s elite tug-of-war teams battle it out.  Now following Shanghai’s colossal World Expo, lil’ ol’ Taipei would have its chance to shine.  An expo, be it world, floral or erotica, is not just a chance for exhibitors to come to together and push their products (nations, environmental solutions, edible underwear) but a time when the city can show itself to the world (maybe not so much in the case of Erotica Expos).  I wanted to see how Taipei did this.

My home town, Canberra, has an annual floral festival, Floriade.  Growing up there, I was dragged along as I child, where I would kick a soccer ball around while my Mum admired the tulips, and also took my now fiancé there on of our earliest dates.  It is that kind of versatile place, something for most people.  That said, most of the flowers were foreign, as I recall, giving Floriade a slightly ‘un-Australian’ feeling.  But putting aside dubious questions of national identity, my best memories of Floriade are from the spring of 2000, when the local government, in a completely expected act of economic rationalism, privatised what had long been a free event.  So if people are going to have to pay to go in, someone needs to sell them tickets.  That person would be me.  Somehow I managed to land the cushiest job of my patchy working life, selling tickets to a flower festival.  This gave me a good chance to soak up the atmosphere of the event and when combined with my experiences as a Floriade visitor, something against which to compare the Taipei Flora Expo.

This background explanation gives you some context for my expectations.  I find myself in Yuanshan (the district home to the bulk of the Flora Expo) most weeks and have watched the venue and the area around the MRT transform from a bland if mildly neglected park area into a seamlessly gleaming open and attractive development.  I am aware of the corruption problems with the local government.  When I’m feeling righteous, this annoys me.  When I’m feeling pragmatic, I’m resigned to the understanding that corruption is part and parcel of all governments, particularly when major events are involved.  Maybe if I was a local tax payer then perhaps I would be outraged.  But, then again, there is probably plenty of other things that would outrage me even more.  As it stands, I still maintain the stance of an outsider in this case.  I did not vote for the local government and unfortunately I’m not surprised if they are on the take.

pfarrelly_flora_expo02Now to the Flora Expo itself.  My fiancé and her family had already spent several hours at the Expo by the time they had arrived.  Her mother is in a wheelchair, so she and a carer (my fiancé) were allowed in free.  Her father paid $200 NT, or the equivalent of about $6 US, which I felt was very affordable.  My student ticket, at $100 NT, even more so.

That Bob Ronald succeeded in navigating his wheelchair across the cracked and uneven pavements of Taipei for several decades is testament to his resilient character.  By my estimation, Taipei is much more wheelchair-friendly now than it was in the past.  The excellent facilities in the subway stations are proof of this.  Still, trips with my fiance’s mother had to be carefully planned – did the destination have ramps? How accessible was the toilet? And so on.  Fortunately the Flora Expo was ideal for those in a wheelchair.  My fiance’s mother could be wheeled around the venue, with ramps and lifts aiding access to what would otherwise be awkward places to reach.  When arriving, I thought my girlfriend and her folks would be easy to spot by virtue of the wheelchair, as is often the case.  This was not to be, as the two dozen wheelchairs I saw before laying eyes on them threw me off the chase.  And I don’t think that those in the wheelchairs were just onboard to cut some queues, as was reported to be the case at the Shanghai Expo.

For most who attended, one of the lasting memories of the Shanghai Expo was that of the queues.  While I didn’t attend any of the larger pavilions where queuing was necessary, the huge number of smaller exhibits and gardens I saw didn’t require me to line up at all.  I could just walk in, wander around the (admittedly at times tightly packed) garden, and then out again.  And it is not as if there was no one there that day.  Based on my regular visual audits from the train line of how many people were at the Expo, attendance was slightly above average.  This no doubt due to the gloriously rare winter sunshine we had that day.

As mentioned earlier, I am not a great connoisseur of gardens.   However, there was enough variety and skill on display at the Flora Expo for me to consistently surprised and engaged with the gardens.

Photos: P.F.


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