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No More Than Six Balloons

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The Interactive Emergency Evacuation Exhibition Center in Taiwan is one of the world’s odder transport museums. The Tapei Metro System (MRT), according to its official literature, aims to go ‘beyond its role as a mere transportation mode by also transporting passengers to a beautiful new world’. The IEEEC, however, transports you to a world where everything has gone wrong. It’s aimed at children. Large wall displays in the foyer show the layout of the centre, the range of souvenirs on offer, and a cartoon child fleeing the Grim Reaper: ‘Knowledge is the key to survival!’

Inside the darkened main area, beneath a multitude of security cameras – exhibits? operational? – a posse of screaming children are jumping on an illuminated display set into the floor. It’s the Prohibited Items Game! A metro carriage is littered with explosives, knives, pets, a chicken, some balloons, a guide dog, a wheelchair-bound senior citizen. The children are frantically kicking everything out through the doors. The game flashes up a warning: ‘Grandma has brought a lot of contrabrand onto the Metro, kids!’ There are thirty seconds to dispose of it before a guard issues a ticket. The full list of prohibited items intriguingly includes, alongside weapons and explosives, ‘no more than six balloons’. How did they come up with that number? Was there a Balloon Committee? I imagine sombre officials at a long table, painstakingly taking depositions from clowns on the balloon quantity question.

An old man has squeezed himself into a child’s seat to drive a train through a virtual MRT system. He is watching with growing fury as a single passenger takes for ever to board, rolling his head from side to side and idly consulting his watch. The old man closes the doors and bolts from the station. A siren sounds: ‘Game Over.’ The old man slams the controls in exasperation and cedes his place to a four year old.

The Smoke Safety Room reproduces the disorienting effect of being lost in a maze of smoke-filled corridors. Emergency exits lead nowhere, or back into the maze, and after three or four attempts to get out, I start to feel genuinely afraid. Escaping at last, I find myself, at track level, beside a full-size carriage at a station platform. Beneath the platform is a small space, just big enough for huddling in, with a sign, invisible from above: ‘Emergency Waiting Area.’

I leave through the Time Corridor. One wall shows architectural details of the metro systems of Lisbon, Berlin, Tokyo, Paris. On the other wall is a timeline of disasters. Through the 1980s, London features with shameful regularity, then after the King’s Cross fire drops out until July 2005. These days, the main threat to subway systems isn’t the accidental combustion of old rubbish or electrical faults, but terrorist attacks. In the main room, children are playing Whack-a-Mole against the insistent dance of electronic flames.

Comments on “No More Than Six Balloons”

  1. Joe Morison says:

    It sounds too surreal, Jason. If it wasn’t for the pictures, i’d suspect the whole experience of being the result of six balloons of nitrus oxide.

  2. A.J.P. Crown says:

    What happens if you get on with your six balloons and someone on the train asks you to hold an extra balloon– say, because they’re very tired? It sounds like a can of worms.

  3. Geoff Roberts says:

    I wonder what happens to people like me who consistently react to such manipulation by breaking the rules? Would I be allowed to enter the heavenly kingdom, or would I be pushed off the platform by two of those pokerfaced demons? Isn’t there a law against giving kids nightmares with such awful images in Taipei? Makes the Berlin Underground seem very tame – all you get there are offers of newspapers and a few odd tunes on a guitar if you’re lucky.

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