Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Another night in Shilin

Night Markets are a bit like Taiwan's answer to pubs. Almost every town or city has at least one. They're popular spots for locals (and nowadays, tourists) to meet, relax, and mingle. They come in all sizes from small gatherings of a few merchants, to huge carnival-like bazaars that stretch for blocks. There is something unique about each one, yet something universal about all of them... and of course, everyone has their favorite one.

Shilin (士林), is a district on the north side of Taipei. The name literally means "Scholarly Woods", a reference to the times way back when the area was apparently known for producing scholars who passed the imperial civil service exams. It is (or has) also been known for producing cutting knives (士林名刀), being the location of CKS's former residence, and for its large expat population in the Tianmu neighborhood, and happens to be where I spent my teenage years and still live today.

Of course, if you come to Taipei, odds are you'll come to Shilin with what is probably its most famous attraction in mind... the Shilin Night Market. A sprawling collection of vendors, hawkers, stalls, stands, stores, and restaurants, packed into the streets and alleyways of several city blocks, filling up from sunset to way past midnight. The market started back in the 19th and early 20th century as a meeting point for farmers in Shilin to sell their produce near a wharf on the Keelung River. The fledgling marketplace quickly attracted merchants and vendors, and as the city of Taipei grew, continued to operate through the night. And thus, the Shilin Night Market was born. Today, it is one of those "must see" places for visitors, and thus, one of those spots I'd go when I was bored to people-watch.

At around 4PM everyday, the streets and alleyways in the area start to fill up with students just out of school, tourists clutching their guidebooks, and everyday people from all over Taipei. The vendors start to set out their wares, the shops start to open up, and the smells of food (and the infamous stinky tofu) start to fill the air as people wander towards the food courts and stalls. By 8PM, business is going full swing with hordes of people pouring through the streets and alleyways, and ever more people pouring out of busses and MRT trains. At midnight, the last MRT train leaves Jiantan Station and the crowds begin to thin. By 3AM, the crowds and roadside vendors have gone, and the last shops still open close their doors... until the next night.

Most people these days come to the Shilin Night Market via Taipei's shiny new MRT system (which is probably a good topic for another time). The closest station to the night market, Jiantan (劍潭) Station (ironically not Shilin Station), is right across the street from the south end of the night market, and starts to fill up every afternoon with people headed to the night market.

Coming out of the station, most people tend to drift first to the food court, a squat looking building across the street from the station filled with vendors hawking all sorts of gastromic delights (or horrors depending upon your personal tastes) - noodles, steak platters, sashimi, Shilin sausages (huge tubes of glistening meat and fat, also hawked by dozens of roadside stands throughout the area), kabobs, pork ribs stewed with herbs, stinky tofu, and the ubiquitous mainstay of night markets everywhere in Taiwan: oyster omelets (蚵仔煎). Proprieters and cooks literally pull in anyone standing outside ther stall for more then two seconds (Note: pretending you don't speak Mandarin or Taiwanese generally doesn't work either... I tried).

Drifting north of the food court, one enters a labyrinth of streets and alleys jampacked with people, vendors, and shops... the main portion of the night market itself. Narrow alleys are made even smaller with vendors setting out their wares right in the middle of the alleyway (technically illegal), the crowds of people stream around them like water around a rock in a river. All manner of things can be found here for cheap, from clothes, housewares, cheap electronics, more food, shoes, toys, and watches. Shopkeepers hire hawkers to stand on stools above the crowds yelling through loudspeakers extolling the virtues of their goods and encouraging passersby to stop and shop. The hawking generally borders on the dramatic side (the manager offering to throw himself into the Danshuei River if his prices weren't the lowest on the street).

Did I mention that blocking traffic by setting up shop in the middle of the street was illegal? Most vendors tend to do so anyhow, apparently because the profit made exceeds the consequences of getting caught. Nontheless, the local cops still try to crack down periodically. Many of these illegal merchents will hire lookouts who stand near the end of the alleyways for advance warning. Oftentimes, visitors will suddenly see the vendors suddenly grab their wares and run... or on more dramatic occasions, an entire line of street vendors pushing their stalls up the alleyway as fast as they can... followed a few seconds later by a few cops walking through the area.

The cops know the vendors are there, the vendors know the cops will cite them if they're caught. Each side knows that the other isn't going away. So there's sort of an unofficial arrangement... you're only in trouble if you get caught. The cops don't come down aggressively giving the vendors plenty of time to run; a vendor who gets caught gets ticketed and released. It's a neverending game of cat and mouse that plays itself out every night. All the while, the activity in the background continues unabated. Just another night in Shilin.



Anonymous said...

Hello Hai Tien, can I put a link to this article on the show note of my next podcast? My interviewee is a night market queen and we do a sound seeing in another night market in Taipei. This article is a great reference.

Bala Daily is really cool! Keep up the good work.

Hai Tien said...

Whoops, sorry for not seeing your comment earlier. Feel free to link here, and thanks for the comments!