Archives for category: taipei street culture

It is Lantern Festival time, and hordes of hungry celebrants wander the parks and streets of Taiwan to enjoy beautiful displays of light and color. It’s a Rooster theme this year…

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Lanterns are made of fabric stretched over wire, then lit from the inside. A park or street full of these is quite magically lovely.

Street food is now in high gear. Dad and I worked the booths in Taichung Park, and although the treats were many and varied we unanimously decided that Oa Bao, oyster dumplings (and a palindrome too!) took the prize.

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Oa bao anatomy, visible before they are sealed.

Giant circles of wonton wrappers are placed in a bowl, seasoned cabbage placed on the bottom, a raw egg in the center, oysters arranged around the egg like flower petals, then covered with more cabbage, wrapped and sealed, and simmered bottom down in hot oil. Once they’re sealed, they’re deep fried golden brown.

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The well-oiled machine: night market stall workers in a choreographed sequence they repeat hundreds if not thousands of times. A hard life and I’m very grateful for their work and culinary expertise!

The end result is salty and crispy on the outside, with hot sweet nutty juicy oyster-y eggy awesomeness inside. A squirt of Taiwan’s unique sweet and sour fishy sauce is optional (see Cathy Erway’s book Food of Taiwan for the recipe). You can make a meal of one oa bao, Dad and I polished off five.

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Dad needs both hands to handle one.

When I first came to Taiwan I was struck by the playfulness of women’s fashion. Unlike their sisters on the mainland, young Taiwanese women blend together influences from American coeds, Japanese manga bondage girls, and old China in a unique fusion.

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Night market fashion: the lightweight sundress and sneakers on the girl in front compromise feminine and funky.

 

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Coco, a young museum curator, demonstrates Taiwan casual winter chic.

Yet echoes of the Chinese past continue to infuse Taiwanese life. Near my cousin’s apartment, old temple art depicts Imperial women in splendid layers of silk brocade, with dangling jewels and ornate hairstyles with blossoms woven in.

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A Qing Dynasty lady from a temple painting more than 250 years old.

Ancient Chinese fashion on a living woman can be breathtaking. I recently saw a young Beijing Opera actress in a demonstration. With a dainty, butterfly-like lightness she mimed sewing, gardening, and feeding her chickens.

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Chinese Opera ‘young miss’ mimes sewing with needle and thread.

This was balanced by the grace and power of an older actress who played a doomed concubine bidding farewell to her emperor, then committing suicide. The scene where she drives the sword into her chest was electrifying. Taiwanese society has many such surprising pairings of tradition and modernity…

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This actress rocks a gold and blue cape embroidered with cranes, dragonflies, and lotus blossoms.

 

 

Taipei is a city of animal lovers, and cats have a special place in peoples’ hearts. A woman down the street feeds strays daily, and this little guy lives in a tiny house just near my apartment.

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Chillin’ on Wenzhou Street…

He loves to sleep on scooter seats…

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How does he manage not to fall off?

Every morning I am greeted by a lively rendition of Catzilla on a street corner.

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ゴジラ!!

Another favorite imaginary cat of mine is Maji Meow. Maji, a frequent commuter, is featured in public service announcements for the Taipei Metro. Poor Maji (I think of her as female as she is often encumbered with shopping bags) is constantly shoved, squashed, trampled, and denied seating by mean co-commuters.

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Maji Meow squashed by a heartless hipster, and blocked by an stampeding student.

Her brow is usually wrinkled in consternation–s/he even bursts into tears sometimes!

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I’d like to sit…but instead I’ll reproach you with tears streaming down my furry face!

If she was real I would take her into my lap and scratch her ears.

This afternoon was cool and breezy, with clean air and purplish clouds hovering over Taiwan’s green mountains. I walked in the green thickets of the Taiwan Water Park’s ecological trail and was delighted to spot a hummingbird hawkmoth sipping from the flowers. I’ve only heard of them before this: a precious sighting and apparently good luck!

These tiny creatures look so much like hummingbirds in flight I was fooled; but they are only the size of a baby’s thumb; their Latin name, Macroglossum stellatarum, is longer than they are. I couldn’t capture my little friend with my humble phone camera, so below are images captured by professionals courtesy of Wickipedia (next time they ask for $$, give them a little.)

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Haunt of the hummingbird hawkmoth. If you leave nature alone in Taipei, this is what you get! Luxuriant undergrowth along the ecology trail right in the middle of town.

 

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Captured in action, courtesy of Wickipedia contributor.

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Excellent photo, again from Wickipedia, that captures the birdlike tail of the hummingbird hawkmoth. Are you amazed? I was!

For those of you locked in winter’s icy grip and craving a little color: I offer images of Taipei’s famous Jianguo Flower Market. Tucked under an overpass, hundreds of sellers convene here every Saturday to sell flowers of almost every description. I was staggered by the variety and beauty of plants on offer: certainly, Taiwan’s lush sub-tropical climate is a flower’s best dream! The crowds eagerly buying plants for house and yard included many families, several Buddhist nuns, and a smattering of wai-guo ren (foreigners like me).

In this montage, see if you can spot: bromeliads, orchids; succulents; azaleas; hibiscus; peonies; and bonsai trees. Enjoy!

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Shoppers enjoying the huge selection of beautiful flowers and plants.

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Buddhist nuns in backpacks.

Today at lunchtime I foraged in the maze of lanes just north of National Taiwan University. A humble Buddhist vegetarian buffet beckoned; unlike American buffets, Taiwan’s are generally very fresh and very cheap.

This little restaurant, staffed by serene women in eyeglasses and aprons, featured meatless Buddhist dishes. Long before tofurkey, rich and savory flavors and textures in Asian vegetarian cooking have used a wide variety of fungi (lovely mushrooms of every shape and color and those crunchy black delights termed ‘mu er’ or ‘tree ears’), tofu in every form imaginable and some never imagined (silky, crunchy, in noodly ribbons), and an ingenious selection of wheat gluten nuggets in sauces sweet, salty, and spicy.

Rubbing shoulders with students and monks, I loaded my plate with delicious food for the US equivalent of $3. Nirvana.

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Vegetarian Buddhist buffet. A happy sight for hungry eyes!

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No one can prepare cabbage like the Chinese. When it’s fresh and cooked just enough, it retains a hint of sweetness.

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Chinese stewed boiled eggs: salty, savory, satisfying.

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Lotus root with red chiles; a lovely delicate flavor with slightly nutty overtones.

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Crunchy ‘tree ear’ fungus with red chiles.

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At least four different kinds of mushrooms evoke flavors of secret forests in Taiwan’s mountain heart.

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Stir fried tofu chunks in a sweet and sour sauce.

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Carrots, edamame, and tofu shreds in a light gravy.

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Mysterious sheets of tofu, just a bit chewy with nice star anise flavors.

The cities of Asia are surely places that younger countries like America should look for future examples, good and bad.

Taiwan has a relatively short history of colonization by industrialized humans and a diverse natural ecosystem that allows for persistence of animals and plants even in the core of Taipei (population closing in on 3 million). Here are a few images of Taiwan’s urban ecosystem, where human intent and design combine with natural forces to create oases of nature.

I hope you find them as mentally refreshing as I do.

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Da’an Park: skyscrapers loom behind the palm trees of the park.

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A beautiful pond lies at the heart of Da’an park. This park was created only about a decade ago from a large lot of urban blight, including abandoned buildings and waste dumps. This area is now home to dozens of species of herons, geese, hawks, ducks, egrets, and songbirds.

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Striped bamboo. There are many exquisite bamboo species gracing the park.

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Looking up: delicate green canopy of bamboo evokes the great forests of the mountains.

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Blossoms of every kind can be seen, even in winter.

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Common tiger butterfly. Dozens of species of Taiwanese butterflies float like poems through various zones of the park: sunny, shady, near water, flower patches.

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The old fig trees and rubber trees of the park are lovingly propped up and offer a haven to all kinds of birds, insects, and animals.

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Pallas’s squirrel, a happy inhabitant of the park’s older fig trees. Utterly without fear and capable of bounds of ten feet or more.

At the end of a long day in class, then struggling to deposit a check and failing, I limped home along Wenzhou Street. My flagging spirits perked up when I hit the little string of coffee shops toward Xinsheng Road. Shaded by ancient gnarled fig trees and snuggled up against a lovely crumbling house with ceramic roof tiles, one small intersection contains four coffee houses facing each other amicably. Students and cats slouch past or huddle on ancient sprung couches, tattered books lie facedown on stained wooden tables. A scent of jasmine intertwines with coffee and cigarette smoke.  Strains of Taiwanese hiphop and jazz curl through the air.

Yes, there is still a genuine bohemian coffee scene on this planet–and it’s right here in Taipei. Drink up.

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Rebirth Cafe on Wenzhou Street. The barista seemed to be half awake and it took her 20 minutes to produce a caffe latte, but it was delicious.

 

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The inviting exterior of Rebirth Cafe. Note the huge fig tree hovering over it.

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The caffeine just hit my circulatory system and all is well.

I am in my apartment–my Taipei home for six months! The Wenzhou Street neighborhood snuggles up to Taipei University. Huge busy thoroughfares with swarms of scooters and buses are interspersed by winding alleys and lanes originally designed for Qing dynasty living: they are barely wide enough for a car, and it’s easy to visualize horse drawn carts. They are a delight to wander through.

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A pass-through just wide enough for two people in Taipei’s Da’an district.

I’m reminded of the hutong alleyways, beloved of Beijing, that were decimated to create the Olympic Village in the mid-2000s. Like many things in Taiwan, Taipei’s lanes (xiang, 4th tone) are Chinese heritage preserved yet living and vibrant.

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This young man was singing beautifully, his head thrown back, as he walked along Wenzhou Lane today.

Amid old and new buildings you can smell jasmine and frying dumplings; and see street life unfold, from mothers walking children to students hurrying along with backpacks to elderly shoppers trundling along with loads of fresh vegetables.

Up next: Taipei Coffee Culture!

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Fu dogs are everywhere–this nice example is front of a student eatery near Taiwan National University.