Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Taipei is Fun
By Han Liang-lu
Originally published in the China Times on 30 Apr. 2006

A friend of mine from Shanghai who has a foreign passport came to Taipei by herself to hang out. I was asked to show her around as a local and make sure that she had a good time.

This friend had travelled all over the worl but had never been to Taipei. But just before she came, heard a group of friends who had been to Taipei making fun of Taipei and saying that it was no fun. Other than stopping by the Palace Museum, walking around Eslite, and eating at the night market, there wasn't really anything else to do. As someone who more and more thinks that Taipei is really fun, I thought that Taipei was getting a bum rap

When my friend's friends came to Taipei, their trips were organized by government officials--typical business junkets. Of course they didn't see what's special about everyday life in Taipei. So after they went back home. they didn't think much of Taipei. What traces have several decades of economic growth and democracy left on Taipei life? What is Taipei's advantage compared to Shanghai, a city which has been advancing quickly during the past 15 years?

That afternoon when my friend arrived, we took a taxi from his hotel in east Taipei to the Shida area. Passing by the building in which Little S [a popular TV personality] recently bought an apartment, I told him how much one ping cost in the building. He couldn't understand how it coould cost soo much since the building didn't look as nice as some new buildings in Shanghai--especially since the building was right next to an elevated expressway.

Fortunately my friend saw quite a few tree-lined lanes after we turned onto Shida Road. He kept saying that cities really need some old trees. Then he said that it was a shame that Shanghai had dug up so many trees on old streets in the name of development.
We walked around Shida's lanes and alleys. My friend was fascinated by Jiuxiangju, a second hand bookstore [at 1F, No. 18 Longquan St]. He said that this kind of small independent second-hand bookstore was the way to see a city's culture. When we went past Micang Cafe [24 Chaozhou St.], my friend took a picture for his friendd with his digital camera. He said that on the weekend in Shanghai, he really wished he could find this kind of simple cafe where you can read the paper, talk, and just hang out. Shanghai's coffee shops are too commercial. There are no bohemian cafes like Micang or Jamaica [anybody know where this is?].
Then we went to Grandma Nitti's to have a bottomless cup of American coffee and eat some authentic American carrot cake. My friend, who had studied at an American university on the East Coast was really excited when he saw Philly cheese steaks on the menu. He said there was not a single foreign restaurant in Shanghai that sold this kind of really student-style, down home food. He praised Grandma Nitti's funky casualk style to the heavens saying that it felt like going back to the hippy era in the States. He complained that Shanghai is not like Taipei in that it never went through the kind of cultural exchange that the US and Taiwan had during the Vietnam war. So Shangai people don't really understand American food. All Shanghai has are American restaurants like Fridays. But there are lots of choices in Taipei--you can go to Fridays or Grandma Nitti's if you like. But opening a Fridays is easier--all a business man needs is the capital and he can but a franchise. To open a Grandma Nitti's, the owner needs to know the living culture.

This was the first time my friend had tried fermented Taiwanese tea [baozhongcha]. He listened to He Jian talk about tea and looked at the tea pots. He said that Shanghai did not have any quiet places like this to drink tea. This kind of late-Ming humanistic tea culture just couldn't exist in today's bustling Shanghai.

When it was time for dinner, we naturally did not choose a big hotel or restaurant. Shanghainese go to fancy places all the time these days.

There are so many choices on Yongkang St. But I wanted my friend to feel that we were going some where special. The lines were too long at Dingtaifeng even for Japanese tourists. Anyway, there is now a branch of Dingtaifeng in Shanghai's Xintiandi. I thought about how some Shanghainese men run private snack stalls. Doesn't Yoongkang St. also have some home-style Taiwanese food places run by old Taiwanese guys?

We drank local draft Taiwan beer and had some steamed clams soaked in garlic-infused soy sauce, poached mackerel, yam greens, stewed pork, and grilled perch. My friend kept saying how good it all was and how different it was from the Taiwanese food sold in Shanghai. He also found that the customers were having interesting conversations in the tiny store that could barely hold ten people--one table was discussing Kobe woodblocks while another table discussed Yuan Shi-kai's private life. No uninformed people here. My friend started talking about private Shanghai restaurants like Spring where there is a rule that customers can eat for only one hour so that they can increase their turnover. Shanghai is all about making money. The private restaurants there claim to serve home-style cooking, but who would go to someone's house to eat and then be rushed out after a little while.

A little later we ran into the painter Peng Kang-long and went with him to sip green tea and vintage Wulong at his friend's antique store. Peng said that people who open businesses in the Yongkang St. area are making life instead of making a living. My friend suddenly observed that the difference between Shanghai and Taipei is that after the bubble economy burst here, people here have learned how to live.

My friend sent a text message to his Shanghai friends that evening. It said that ""Taipei is really fun. I don't want to leave."

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