Taipei Markets and Temples
Saturday March 26, 2011
10:00 a.m. Taipei
I’ve spent the last twenty days in Taipei. I’ve suddenly become more attuned to my surroundings here in Taipei, and I’ve been spending all my time exploring this city. On one weekend, Scott and I walked to another night market. This one was called the Shanhe Night Market. It is in the district (or city) of Sanchong, across the Danshui River from Taipei proper. For me, it is all part of Taipei, of course. However, technically I think it is separate.
Scott had a regular routine for walking to this market and we followed his route through our neighborhood. We passed through a small neighborhood market that was already filled with people. We then walked along a very old street called Dihua Street. As in most cities in the world, the original inhabitants of Taipei lived along the rivers, so as you move closer to the riverbanks you find older and older neighborhoods. Dihua Street is one of the oldest streets in Taipei. It has been restored and displays architecture from the many countries that influenced Taiwan over the centuries. It is also known as Grocery Street and has many herb shops and things like that. There are shops selling all kinds of flower buds and mushrooms and plants for making healing teas. You can also pick up shark fins and other animal products believed to have medicinal properties.
At the end of the restored portion of Dihua Street, we turned left to the Dadocheng Wharf. I wrote before about the massive wall that follows the Danshui River through Taipei. There is a large opening at Dadocheng Wharf – large enough for vehicles to get through. On some of my maps, I’ve noticed that these are called evacuation gates. During the day, the river area at Dadocheng Wharf is very busy. In keeping with the cycling craze sweeping across Taiwan, there are bike rental shops there. Families come and rent bikes and ride up and down the bike paths. On Saturdays and Sundays when the weather is nice, the bike path is something like a highway with fender-to-fender bike traffic. Leave it to the Taiwanese to take a leisure activity and turn it into a stressful and crowded affair. That is part of life here as people tend to do the same things and then do those things at the same times and in the same way. At night, however, the river paths are pretty much empty. I saw only two bikes and then two people on foot.
Scott would normally go to this night market by bus or by MRT. This time we walked up the river (me taking pictures of course) and then climbed up to the Taipei Bridge. Bridges are a hit and miss affair here, but this one has a sidewalk for pedestrians and we could walk to the other side. The market itself was just a short distance up the main road. One thing you have to be aware of in Taiwan in general is that the names of roads change all the time. I don’t know why that would be exactly. Perhaps all main roads are today just older sections of roads that have been stitched together. In any event, every time a road, no matter how big, crosses a river or even meets another major road, its name changes. So the road was Minquan West Road on our side of the river and then it became Chongxin Road on the other side. When Chongxin meets the Dahan Bridge further down the river it suddenly becomes Zhonzeng Road and on and on. It usually doesn’t matter for me. Even if the roads kept the same name, the spelling would change drastically on the signs anyway. They use several different systems for writing Chinese names in English, and they can come up with very different spellings. I do use the names to find my way around, but I also rely on geography so that the names don’t matter that much. You simply have to keep track of where you are and in which direction you’re travelling and simply accept that the name of the road will change constantly.
We arrived at the market relatively early and it wasn’t crowded yet. Some people were still setting up their stalls. Even so, it was crowded by Canadian standards. The markets are generally based on one long and narrow street. There will be a gate at each end of the street showing the official entrance to the market. Each side of the street will be lined with shops, stalls, arcade games, and restaurants. If you’re lucky, it will be pedestrian-only at night. If you’re unlucky, scooters and even cars will try to make their way through the market. So far, so good, but in most markets, the middle of the lane will also be filled with market stalls. That line of stalls causes total and utter congestion. When the market is in full swing, you are chest to back with the thousands of other people there and all you can do is shuffle along in step. Still, it’s lots of fun. I’m used to the crowds now and I shuffle along with everyone else.
Scott and I shuffled the entire length of the main market street making mental notes about all the snacks and drinks we’d like to try. Scott had a favorite middle-eastern sandwich stall he wanted to start with and that was located at the far end. Nearly every market has one of these sandwich places. The sandwiches are mouthwatering. I’m not sure of their origins, but they don’t seem Chinese in any way. The sandwich stall consists of an upright metal rod onto which has been jammed a whole bunch of meat. It’s hard to describe. It’s not like a single chicken on a skewer. It’s like the meat of fifteen chickens all jammed onto one rod and making this big blob of meat. This blob of meat rotates in front of a gas grill, which cooks it and heats it. When you order a sandwich, the guy takes a knife and slices off thin bunches of the meat. The meat falls onto a cooking surface underneath. He chops up some onions and vegetables and whatever else goes into the sandwich and cooks it all. It goes into a fresh bun with various sauces and spices. As a final touch, he picks up the sandwich with a metal tong and holds it up to the gas grill to lightly toast it. All this for NT$40 or three for NT$110. It’s delicious.
I ordered three of them that night – two for me and one for Scott. Then we turned around and made our way back through the market picking up little snacks here and there. Scott loves these drinks called Frog’s Eggs. It is essentially a type of sweet syrup with ice water and tapioca balls. It is similar to the famous bubble-milk tea that they make here. We also got three skewers of barbecued beef at a small stall. They were spicy hot and my mouth was on fire for an hour afterward, which led us to sample a locally made ice cream. It was actually more of an ice milk, since it didn’t have the sweetness or creaminess of ice cream in the west.
Every night market is full of surprises. The biggest surprise in this market was a traditional Japanese-style teahouse. I spotted it from far away. I saw the tops of trees swaying above the market. They were the only trees anywhere around, and I assumed they were part of a temple complex. However, when we got close we saw that it was a teahouse. It was a very nice place and seemed out of place in this crazy market. It was an oasis of calm and wood and water. The entrance was a wooden gate and you walked across a small wooden bridge over a pond. All the rooms were Japanese-style with sliding wood and paper doors. The entire teahouse was built over an artificial pond with rocks and waterfalls artfully placed around. Scott and I went in to look around, but we didn’t stay for tea. It was a bit late for that, and I think it would have been far outside our budgets. Places like that are usually overly expensive. They probably served a “famous” tea that costs a small fortune.
On the previous Saturday, Scott and I went to another night market. This one was called the Bancio Night Market. I’d noticed this market several times on my scooter trips as I drove out of Taipei. It was too far to walk there, so we took the MRT and then walked from the Fuzhong MRT station. This market had a much more country feel to it. We weren’t that much farther from the city center, but it felt different. People were friendlier and our presence caused much more reaction. I felt like the first white guy they’d ever seen or something. Lots of people called out to us to come in and sample the food, snacks, or drinks they served. This night market had more arcade games than other night markets I’d been to. Arcade games are a traditional part of the night markets here. At this night market, the games were simple and many were homemade. Some were no more than hundreds of nails hammered into sheets of plywood. You took a piece of wood like a ruler and then flipped metal balls up into these nails and your ball would bounce and make its way through the nails landing in different places to give you points. Other places had traditional Chinese games. You took fifty pieces of wood like mahjong tiles and turned them over one by one and tried to complete a pattern on a board. If you succeeded you won a prize. Sometimes the prizes were goldfish. These goldfish were arrayed in large plastic tubs. If you won, you were given a small net and you could fish out the goldfish of your choice. Looking at these games, you think you’ve gone back fifty years in time. It’s a nice feeling.
This night market had a nice park and a temple nearby. Scott and I climbed up to the top floors of the temple and looked around and I took pictures. The park was unique in that it had public washrooms. These had attracted a number of poorer Taiwanese. Most appeared to be alcoholics and were probably semi-homeless. Many were mentally unbalanced, and when Scott and I sat in the park to eat one of our snacks, they came over to talk to us. It’s a fact that in every country in the world, those with mental problems are the bravest when it comes to talking to foreigners. I attract them like steel filings to a magnet. They are generally harmless and you simply smile and try to figure out what they’re saying. It can get tiring, though, and I generally can’t stay long once they find me.
Last Sunday, Scott was busy during the day, and I went off on a little adventure on my own. I walked back to Dihua Street and then walked north from there. Dihua continued quite a ways north and I kept going as far as the Keelung River. There are two temples there that I wanted to see. The first is one of the most famous temples in Taiwan. It is called Baoan Temple. It is a Taoist temple dedicated to a god of medicine. Religion here, by the way, is a complicated affair. It makes little sense to me in a way. They call themselves Buddhist, but I see little actual Buddhism. They also call themselves Taoist, but, again, I don’t see any Taoism. What I see for the most part are elements of a traditional folk religion with hundreds and hundreds of local gods. I did some reading recently, and there is a name for this Chinese folk religion – Shenism. The gods of Shenism seems to have been folded into Buddhist and Taoist traditions into something entirely new. However, they still call it Buddhism or Taoism. It makes no sense to me, but that’s the way it is.
So, even though they say this temple is a Taoist temple, it is really something else entirely. It is a very elaborate temple with carvings, murals, and statues everywhere. The main god is an ancient emperor in China who was famous for his intellect and his healing abilities. There are many legends surrounding miracles he performed including removing some kind of obstruction from the throat of a tiger and saving its life. When he died, people prayed to him and made offerings to him for good health. And he became a Shenist deity. This temple also housed a female deity dedicated to childbirth. As such, the temple was filled with beautiful young women. Some were obviously newly married and were praying for a child – preferably a son. Others were pregnant and were there to make an offering in hopes of a healthy child.
Temples here have a vibrant community, spiritual, and economic life. I think you would have to grow up here to truly appreciate how they function and how they fit into the lives of the people. Temples can be privately owned, and as such can be huge sources of income for the owners. People buy incense and ghost money and burn them in the temples and this money goes to the owners. There are regular and scheduled ceremonies giving offerings to the various deities and people know when they are and show up for them. Tables will be set up in front of a shrine containing a statue, and people will gather and place offerings of fruit, food, and drinks on the table. They will buy elaborate paper lanterns and ghost money and leave it there to be burned later. Some temples have large bins of carved wooden sticks. You choose one of these sticks and then bring it to an office where for a fee a priest will translate its significance for you. There are also these crescent-shaped pieces of wood that you toss into the air in pairs as you ask a question. How they fall on the ground – face up or face down – and how they sit relative to each other gives you the answer to your question. Everyone who visits buys large handfuls of incense sticks. These are lit at permanent flames and you walk around the temple bowing three times at each statue or shrine and leaving sticks of incense in the incense bowl or burner. Children run around and play. Photographers take pictures. Once or twice a year, there are elaborate festivals. They even take their gods out on palanquins for long journeys on foot to visit other gods at other temples. These parades can cross the entire country as people take turns carrying the load. These temples are true community centers and add a lot to the life of the people here.
The other temple was a famous Confucius temple. The Confucius temples are equally frustrating if you try to apply logic and purpose to them. As I understand Confucius, he was an academic and a philosopher and a government worker. Confucianism to me is a practical system of thought based on certain moral values and education. It hardly seems to be something that would produce a temple. Yet, there they are – Confucius temples. Confucius temples, in keeping with the values of Confucianism, are plain and simple. They have elements of a peaceful garden. This temple had an old history, but the modern building was a complete reconstruction and had in fact been moved from somewhere else in the city. It’s not clear what Confucius would think of the new location – directly underneath the flight path of jets landing at the Songhsan International Airport. Every four or five minutes, the peace was shattered by a massive passenger jet flying low overhead. It was a beautiful temple, and some pictures I took with my wide-angle lens capture some of that.
I spent quite a bit of time at those temples, and then I walked all the way back to my apartment through some new neighborhoods. Even normal neighborhoods here have something of interest to make a walk worthwhile.