Mr. Mario Ste-Marie
Executive Director, Canadian Trade Office in Taipei
Long ago – 2008 – a man from a faraway northern land arrived in Taipei, part of a government investment-promotion team. This was his first time in Ilha Formosa, the “Beautiful Island,” so-named by passing Portuguese mariners in the early 1500s. This man’s people affectionately call their own homeland the “Great White North,” and after his short time in Taipei he went away thinking Taiwan was a mighty fine place as well.
His name–Mario Ste-Marie. His homeland–Canada. And as it happens, he has happily spent significantly more time in Taiwan since that visit. Mr. Ste-Marie is the Executive Director of the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei (CTOT; 加拿大駐台北貿易辦事處).
After diplomatic postings in New Delhi and Sydney, he says he was very thankful and “felt blessed to be offered the Taipei posting, because Sydney and Taipei are the two most in-demand, most popular postings in Oceania/Asia. Today, I am on my third consecutive overseas posting, which is quite a rarity in the foreign service.”
In 2008 his stay was very brief, just a few days. His impression was of “a very busy place, with a lot of scooters and really good food,” and he was “impressed by the high level of technological advancement.”
▲ What the CTOT Does:“My key role is to raise Canada’s profile, and to deepen Canada-Taiwan friendship and collaboration.” Executive Director Ste-Marie states there are about 60,000 Canadians in Taiwan, most dual citizens, and the CTOT provides them services – the 4th – largest Canadian expatriate community in the world, he says. The CTOT also has an important commercial team, facilitating cooperation between Canadian-Taiwanese companies. “I’m very proud to say that the impressive Tuned Mass Damper in Taipei 101 (a tourist attraction on its own) is Canadian technology. Canada’s Bombardier is also involved in the Taipei Metro. Another role is promoting Canada-Taiwan people-to-people relationships, through education, tourism, etc. Tourism is increasing strongly in both directions. The CTOT also work’s with the Taiwan government on shared issues – energy, aging societies, and so on. (Photo: Chia-Ying Yang)
Taipei – Plum Posting
Explaining what makes Taipei such a sought-after posting, Ste-Marie says that, “First of all, the city is very likable. If you look at the other major capitals in Asia, there’s not many where you could be living right in the city and pollution is not a big problem. Also, everything works. It’s a city of course, so there will be heavy traffic. But the infrastructure is there, with great public transportation that is easy to navigate.”
“And people are nice. They’re not pushy. And even though you’re in a big city, you don’t feel stressed. If you take the Taipei Metro– and I do – people wait in queue. Everyone is very polite and disciplined, making life more pleasant. And even if you don’t speak the language, people will help you, even if they don’t speak English. That’s a very big plus. This is also an open society, it’s a democracy, people’s rights are respected, and it’s a very safe city too.” Ste-Marie comments how in global rankings Taipei is ranked one of the safest cities around the world.
“Plus, of course, Taipei has a very good reputation for quality restaurants. So there’s no risk of getting sick. The climate is also very pleasant. Yes, you have two or three months of rain, but there are other regional places where it’s six months.”
And from Taipei, with a flight of just two or three hours and you can be in many different (attractive) destinations – Tokyo, Manila, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing.
“All of these things together, especially if you have kids – it’s perfect.”
Impressions Then, Impressions Now
Comparing his impressions from back in 2008 with those formed during his Taipei posting, Ste-Marie says that, “Of course, you still have the great food, and the scooters. But it’s the people that have had the strongest impression on me. That is the key asset of Taiwan. The people are very polite, and very welcoming. Perhaps this is an inheritance from the Japanese era (Japan ruled Taiwan as a colony 1895-1945). But at the same time, I’ve found the local people very expressive; they tell you what they think. That is a big plus.”
“Another thing that has made the strongest impression on me here is the work ethic. I’ve discussed this with colleagues based in other countries. The people of Taiwan are very hard-working and dedicated. All my counterparts in other locations say the same thing, supporting this.”
He states that the same view is held in the private sector. “For example, people with a company based in Canton (廣州) have told me that they need three people in mainland China to do the same amount of work that one person does here. Local employees demonstrate a strong interest in being efficient, and producing results.”
He likes how, though in a bustling metropolis, it is easy to find places to relax. “I like the way the city is built, with main roads creating grids and smaller streets and lanes leading within. In these areas are small parks, so although in a big city, it’s easy to find quiet oases where the sounds of traffic are gone. This is very intelligent, building ‘islands of quiet’ in slower areas, which attract charming shops, cafes, and eateries.”
By coincidence, Ste-Marie took up his Taipei posting just before the last major election. “It was impressive to see, in this young democracy, how comparatively peaceful the process was. Afterwards, the transition process was also relatively peaceful. Throughout, before and after, there were demonstrations, but all was quite orderly. I have been impressed by the freedom of expression, and how it has been established over such a relatively short period.” Taiwan is a shining example for other countries, he says, especially in this region.
Lifestyle Differences – Back Home vs Big-City Taipei
“People eat out a lot more here than in Canada,” he has noted. “There are far more good options available that are not too expensive. It seems one reason for this is the smaller size of homes here, so restaurants serve as a social meeting place. Another thing I like about the lifestyle here is that you walk a lot more. In any city in Canada you must have a car, even for simple things like getting milk or bread. Here, there’s always a 7-Eleven a minute or two away on foot.”
As well as satisfaction of almost all other daily-life necessities, he adds. For a large city, the cost of living is relatively low. Ste-Marie had planned to purchase a car after taking up his Taipei posting, but quickly found there was no need, and simply hires a vehicle whenever he and his wife travel elsewhere around the island.
When in Taipei – City-Experience Musts
There are a few things visitors should do if they really want to enjoy this city, says Ste-Marie. “Jump on a bike. My wife and I love diving into the different lane/alley neighborhoods, uncovering family-owned eateries, cafes, and shops. This city deserves ‘discovery by bike,’ and the YouBike (public bike-rental) system makes this easy.” He is also a fan of the city’s extensive riverside bike-path system, which is dotted with bike-rental points.
“We really enjoy the local family-run restaurants,” he says. “Very friendly, and very proud of their food. As well, I strongly recommend trying Taiwan’s street food. And be adventurous. Night markets have all kinds of treats to explore.” Just recently he was introduced to the joys of pig-blood pudding, which has a pleasant mochi-like chewiness.
He is as well a hiking enthusiast, and takes advantage of the perimeter mountains and trails so close to the city core, many looking right down into the Taipei Basin. “Hiking is easy here. You can be up in the surrounding mountains in just 30 minutes. Taipei life means easy access to nature, surprising for a city this size, with lots of nice hikes. A nice day is a visit to the Taipei Zoo (台北市立動物園), then a Maokong Gondola (貓空纜車) ride up into the hills.” Maokong is a tea-plantation area with many attractive teahouses.
For outings with groups rather than just on one’s own – especially with friends – he has another recommendation. “If with other people, a fine way to spend a night is a movie in Ximending (西門町; an area known for its venerable cluster of theaters and pedestrian-only shopping streets), followed by a bit of browsing and people-watching, and finished with a relaxing foot massage in a local massage parlor.”
Urban Planning Ideas From a World Traveler
Ste-Marie states that his suggestions on future Taipei urban planning pathways are admittedly based on his own biases – i.e., his leisure-time preferences. “Taipei has a good public transportation system, and good bike paths. But I believe these should be developed even more. These are major attractions for the city internationally. I also think that buying train tickets, etc., can be made easier, because though there are different methods that make things easier for local people, navigating these options, like the ibon system at 7-Eleven outlets, is still beyond people that don’t have a strong grasp of Chinese.”
Taipei, he reiterates, is one of the most livable and likeable cities in Asia. “A major city, and especially a capital city,” he states, “has strong attractive power to draw people to a country. There is great potential to create strong Taipei brand identity,” and he believes this should be a key focus for the central government, not just the Taipei government, on the international marketing stage.
▲ Happy Birthday / Bonne Fête, Canada! This is a big year for the young country, born July 1st, 1867 from the confederation of a number of British colonies. The CTOT is celebrating the country’s 150th anniversary with a rich harvest of special activities through the year. At a “Canada 150” press conference held May 24th, Mr. Ste-Marie announced Air Canada’s resumption of Vancouver-Taipei flights after a 14-year hiatus, and the opening of a Roots Taiwan flagship store in the Taipei 101 Mall, the iconic Canadian firm’s 115th Taiwan outlet. On July 1 is the annual CANADA DAY! Celebration at Taipei Hakka Cultural Park (台北市客家文化主題公園), and the annual Mackay Charity Ball is in October. For more information, visit the CTOT website (www.canada.org.tw). (Photo: Chia-Ying Yang)
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