Sunday, 10 November 2013

Taipei Day Two: Cultural Immersion

Fog prevents us from seeing the view of the ocean from Jiufen
This morning we headed out of Taipei over an hour's drive to Yilan County (宜蘭縣), where many families like to go on the weekends. There isn't too much pollution and the water from the mountains is considered to be very clean and fresh.

The street scene at the National Center for Traditional Arts
To get there we had to go through Asia's second-longest tunnel -- 12.5km -- built during Chen Shui-bian's administration and it helped cut the travel time from two hours to one.

We arrived at the National Center for Traditional Arts, a complex built like a traditional Chinese street where local artisans and performers can have a platform to not only sell their products but also practice some traditional arts.

One of the shops sold small ceramic pipes shaped like ducks, turtles, vases, and so on. The owner gave us a quick demonstration and gave a free instruction book with music for customers to try.

A demonstration on a ceramic duck pipe
Another sold soaps made of natural ingredients, using various scents, such as lavender, green tea, Taiwanese coffee and orchid. The natural soaps are supposed to be non allergenic and good for the skin. So naturally we bought a few bars to try. There are also soaps for washing clothes... but don't we all just throw things into the washing machine these days?

Then a procession came by and it was a group of performers clearing the main path for a character called Liao Tianding (廖添丁) who was a real-life person who lived during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan.

People describe him as a Robin Hood figure who robbed from the rich and the Japanese government to give to the poor. Here Liao was dressed in a long traditional Chinese robe wearing a hat and spectacles and sitting by a table with a teapot and cup.

His entrance was the premise to a series of performances on a stage which interestingly began in Japanese, harking back to the occupation period.

The tea house that inspired Spirited Away
After lunch we drove for two hours to Jiufen (九份), a small town in a very mountainous area. It's called Jiufen because in the beginning nine families moved there and when shipments arrived in town, they would ask for jiufen, or "nine portions".

In 1893, gold was discovered there and soon the place was swamped with gold diggers hoping to strike it rich.
The days of finding gold are gone, but the town has been revitalized thanks to director Hou Hsiao-hsien's A City of Sadness in 1989 starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai that talks about the "White Terror" period when the Kuomintang, having arrived from China after its defeat in 1949, rounded up thousands of Taiwanese, sending them to prison or executing them. 

Another film, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away in 2001 was inspired by Jiufen and in particular a tea house called Ah Mei Cha Lou. As a result many Japanese tourists like to make their pilgrimage to this place. That combined with narrow stairs made it a very crowded area.

Taiwanese crepe filled with shaved peanut and ice cream
Other than the movie references, Jiufen is very popular, particularly on the weekends, where tourists descend on the area as well as Taiwanese who come and stay in the various B&Bs. The narrow streets are filled with small shops selling all kinds of snacks, from stinky tofu both deep fried and braised, fish balls, marinated chicken hearts, and grilled sausages and squid.

We tried some interesting snacks, such as a crepe with a layer of peanut and dark sugar shaved from a block, then two small scoops of ice cream added before it was wrapped up and put in a small plastic bag. The crepe was crunchy, soft and cold at the same time making it a delicious treat but had to be eaten quickly. 

Braised stinky tofu, with the spicy ones on the right
Another traditional dessert is cubes of taro with glutinous rice balls in a sweet green bean soup. It wasn't too sweet, but hard for one person to finish a bowl. This shop was so popular that it has one shop stall for selling the concoction with a seating area behind it and then another shop a few stalls down just for patrons to sit and eat.

One of many stray cats hanging out at Jiufen. Dogs too!
We ended up having dinner in a tea house a bit further down the way that was lit with red lanterns. The meal featured home-style dishes, such as braised fish and braised spicy tofu, a plate of tong choi or morning glory, stir-fried cabbage, chicken and a simple soup of egg white and seaweed. We also had a plate of stir-fried squid.

It's interesting to see how much of an impact the Japanese occupation had on Taiwan. The Taiwanese resented the colonial period but at the same time the Japanese improved the infrastructure of the island. The Japanese influence on cuisine is also prevalent, with dishes on the whole being light, and pickled vegetables are common. 

The night scene overlooking Jiufen
Meanwhile the Japanese love Taiwanese rice which is similar to Japanese rice, short and round unlike the narrow Thai jasmine rice. The Taiwanese are also very proud of their agricultural industry, constantly improving the quality of its rice, fruits and vegetables. Perhaps it has to do with its food security, making Taiwan self sufficient. But in the process it has created a food industry where there are a number of tourists (like those from Hong Kong) who just come to eat, eat, eat.


  1. Jiufen looks like it'd be a great place to visit but I wonder how true is the idea that the tea house inspired Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away". After all, that film's architectural center-piece is actually a bath house -- and Miyazaki has said he was inspired by the bath-house and other buildings in the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum that is located in the same suburb of Tokyo (Koganei) as Studio Ghibli.


    1. I'm not sure where the claim of Jiufen came from, but of course if someone said it, the Taiwanese would love to claim the town as an inspiration for Spirited Away... and it's possible... the place has homes along the mountain and lots of small alleys...