Friday, November 28, 2008

Reason #4 to Love Taiwan

Comfy student cafes in Taipei.

We - we being four Americans, an Australian and a Taiwanese girl - celebrated Thanksgiving at Exotic Masala House, the new Indian restaurant featuring idli and dosa. I think they're losing money; some menu items are gone, the rice is no longer saffron-colored and we had to ask to get the same orgasmic cardamom & cinnamon kick to our tea.

Well, the Taiwanese member of our group noted that it might have been spiced less dramatically to cater to Taiwanese tastes; maybe other customers didn't like it the old way.

It's still a good restaurant though, and the tea is still fantastic as long as you make sure it's got the right amount of cardamom.

After that, we tried to retire to Cafe Salt & Pepper, but it was full. Not interested in the smoking area (even the girl with the stuffy nose could taste the air) we moved on to Cafe Bastille (Shi-da, not Gongguan).

I love how Taipei has no end of these cafes - Cafe Odeon, Latte (or Shake House - we're not sure), Lumiere, Red House, Bastille, Salt and Pepper, Giuliano, and about a million more. Good beer at a reasonable price - yes, NT180 for Belgian beer is reasonable, the same beer in an American pub would cost you far more - comfortable seats, great atmosphere. Funky and fun without being ratty or juvenile. The actual food at some of these places could stand to improve (although Red House does a decent meal and all of them do good brownies) but relaxing with a Delirium Noel in a tatty grandma-chair with good music and a good vibe...that can't be outdone.

Here's where I put in my plug for Malheur 12% Bier. You have to try this stuff at Red House Pub (nobody else seems to have it). This is amazing stuff. Black as night, so fuzzy and deep that it foams right out of the bottle once opened; you have to have it already tipped into the glass if you don't want to lose any. It tastes like everything that's good in the world. Imagine coffee cake, raisins, peaches, pumpkin pie, well-cooked high-quality steak, a crackling fireplace in the dead of winter, Christmas carols, richly flavored tea, gingerbread, black chocolate, dark cherries, cooked apples, cinnamon, Ethiopian coffee, old mahogany, evergreen trees, nutmeg and the sweet sound of your mother's voice - all distilled into an amazing beer experience. Try it.


It was great that out of our group, the Americans talked about Thanksgiving and the others replied with "Yeah...I've heard about that" for things we consider not only normal, but indispensable. 8-hour bus rides home, cold weather, bickering with relatives (all because you love them, of course), cooking all day, watching parades and American, or as I call it, real football, and eating fabulous amounts of fabulous food, followed by swigs of alcohol and getting along famously with the relatives you bickered with earlier in the day.

Thanksgiving as an expat - the rating: 8. Not as good as being home, but still pretty damned good.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mom's Pies

OK, so I'm not making an artistically-minded post about old photos of Formosa, nor am I blogging about the state of the Taiwan economy (I pay taxes; where's my voucher?*), but this is quite important matter itself. I'd say its existence is not only important, but truly vital to expat life in Taiwan.

I'm talking of course about Mom's Pies.

Nevermind that the van can be hard to track down, and that they give you some missionary Christian leaflet with every pie. It's really good pie.

Mom's Pies has a van that circles Taipei, hitting up all the spots where people are likely to want pie; the universities (we've seen it at Taida, Shida and Zhengda), AIT, Tianmu and a few other spots. The only regular stop I know is near Shida/Guting on Thursdays from 4:30-7pm.

They also have a call-in service (02-2627-5040 or 02-2627-2051) and they do deliver.

Did I mention that it's really good pie? It made my day on Thursday, which was otherwise a bit cool and gray, and involved a rather strange work schedule that made nothing convenient. They have all sorts of flavors, from apple, pumpkin and cherry cheesecake to red bean, green bean and purple yam. The only downside is that their outermost crust is a little hard...but the filling was so good - so thick you could pick it up and eat it like finger food - that I didn't mind.

Another thing that's vital to expat life, as I'm learning, is having an adorable pet. Here's Zhao Cai, who is as needy and affectionate as a dog, but can be left at home alone for longer periods:

*Just kidding. I only pay 10% taxes and Taiwan's been very good to me financially, once I stopped working for Kojen. I don't mind that I'm not getting a voucher. But then that's $3600 I'm not using on a ticket to Orchid Island or a hunk of jade.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Qingshan Wang III (Dang Ki)

Some photos of the dangki - otherwise known as a jitong or martial diviner - we saw at San Qing Gong near Guilin Street on the day after Qingshan Wang's birthday.

As mentioned in a previous post, dangki invite possession by spirits who then control their movements. They are handed a 'tool kit' of implements to injure themselves as per the inhabiting spirit's wishes, and while they don't injure themselves deeply, there is a lot of blood loss. The blood is used to write talismans or texts used in divination.

It's a...scary sight, to be sure.

Qingshan Wang II

Just a video of some costumed guys dancing to techno (above), bajiajiang and dragon dancers (below). Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Qingshan Wang Festival I

We saw Dang Ki! In Taipei! Dang Ki (in Taiwanese), or Ji-tong in Chinese, are young men or women who offer themselves up for spiritual possession and then beat themselves with painful implements (pronged clubs, spiked mallets and balls, whips and long needles, to name a few) while their bodies are in the deity's control rather than their own. The blood shed - there is always blood, usually from the back or forehead - is used to write talismans and charms.

It happened today (November 19th) in Taipei, at Sanqing Gong between Guilin Street and Huanhe Road, between 3 and 4pm.

I do have photos and a video, but had to take them on a friend's camera (unfortunately the video has no sound) so they will be posted later.

This is all related to the birthday of Qingshan Wang, and the festivities that take place the day after. More photos and information below.

So I've spent yesterday evening and this afternoon in Wanhua, enjoying the Qingshan Wang birthday festivities. For those who don't know, Qingshan Gong is one of two temples at either end of the famous section of Guiyang Street, north of Longshan Temple and southwest of Ximen. Qingshan Wang - or Lord of the Green Mountain - was a guy named Zhang Gun from the Three Kingdoms era sent to Fujian. Due to his wise, benevolent rule, the locals in Fujian worshipped him as a deity who protected from epidemics and brought peace.

He is called Lord of the Green Mountain because, a thousand years later, an official named Cui brought his likeness to the top of Qingshan, or Green Mountain, as per a verse found on the back of a tablet.

A statue of him was brought to Taiwan when Fujianese settlers moved there, and it is said to have ended up on Guiyang Street because, while carrying it through town, it became too heavy to move in one spot, marking the place where he would like his temple to be built.

His birthday is on the 21st day of the 10th lunar month (this year's November 18th), though the best party in Wanhua is the day after, starting at noon and going until midnight.

Other than the Dang Ki - that is really quite rare, especially in northern Taiwan (I hear it happens a lot more often in the south) it was a noisy street festival such as can be seen at all times of year, celebrating any number of Daoist deities. They began at Qingshan Temple at 5pm (the best photos come from the pre-processional line-up, loop around Wanhua, head through the Guangzhou Street Night Market, stop at Longshan Temple and then continue through the small streets.

One other interesting note was that they did not have typical ba jia jiang. These performed similar duties to ba jia jiang but were made up quite differently. Anyone with any information on this is encouraged to comment; I'd like to know why.

They had red guys...

...and green guys...both of whom reminded me of Thousand Mile Eyes and Ears that Follow the Wind (Matsu's companions), but then there was this fellow:

I haven't seen him before.

There was also a Wealth Beckoning Child - at least I believe this is what he is portraying. I haven't seen one before. Around him were palanquins of the temple's sponsors (you can ride in a sedan chair if you contribute $100,000 NT or more to Qingshan Gong. A few older ladies - probably the wealthiest women in Wanhua - were doing just that.

We also took some great photos of the masks of the largest costumes:

...and of course a generally good time was had by all.

The next Qingshan Wang birthday processional will be held on December 7th, 2009 at 5pm, with the biggest festival taking place on December 8th in the afternoon.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Xiao Lu Niu Fandian

I'm not sure why they're a "fandian" when that means hotel, but whatever. They're good.

This place does beef noodles and some other stuff, but forget the other stuff and just get the beef noodles. I'm not in the habit of recommending beef noodle joints (although this is the second time I've done so) because they're all over the city and they're all so, so wonderful.

But this place deserves a mention because their beef noodles approach what for me is perfection. The meat is not as good as Zhang Mama but the big sell here is that the noodles are homemade. They're barely noodles at all - they're the floppy, doughy kind that are almost like long gnocci. I love those!

The broth is also deep and thick, resounding with flavory and iron-y goodness.

A great place to grab a warming bowl on a cold day.

It largely goes unnoticed because it looks just like every other beef noodle joint - woman out front in an apron, card tables and plastic chairs inside, menus on clipboards, a fat little chihuahua named "Lucky" (I call him "Xiao Pangzi" or "Little Fattie"). It's also right next to the famous Jingmei Night Market, so most people who come and aren't from the neighborhood would rather eat in the market.

That's fine - more homemade noodles for me!

Xiao Lu Niu Fandian is located in Wenshan District, Jingzhong Street #21. Basically take the MRT to Jingmei, get off at Exit 2 and walk straight ahead past the Family Mart, Come Buy and string of small shops and it's right in front of the bus stop for #74 and #284 on the lefthand side of the street.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


We headed to Zhudong yesterday morning to catch transportation to Wufeng for the paSta'ai festival, held every two years by the Saisiyat aboriginal tribe. It's a really cool festival with a fascinating background story, which you can read here:

The festival goes all night but we stayed until 2 or 3 am (after midnight, non-Saisiyat were allowed to join in and dance - which is odd, because the day David visited, outsiders had to leave by midnight. I'm not sure where the disconnect is there.

We got off in Zhudong and called Ah-Q Mama, our contact in Wufeng, in a daze. We had no idea where anything was. We enjoyed our hour in Zhudong, though, buying mountain fruit (apples etc.) from various vendors and snacking on them.

We found Ah-Q Mama through a website ( that my students at, of all places, an investment and fund management firm, helped me Google. She is a lovely woman, petite in stature but big in personality. Ah-Q and Susu were among the friendliest people I've met in Taiwan, and that's saying something. If you are in the Wufeng/Dabajianshan/Guanwu area and need a place to stay, I highly recommend their charming, very country-fied homestay.

We were picked up by Ah-Q Mama and her husband, Susu in Zhudong. They are a very friendly "Taya-su" (I presume that's another name for Atayal because I can't find an aboriginal tribe named 'Taya' when searching) couple who run a homestay up the mountain from Wufeng, where you can see Dabajianshan. They drove us to the site, and then Susu helped us pick up Emily, who came later (all the buses had stopped running by then).

Ah-Q is a sociable woman who until recently held a huge grudge against "Talu" people - it took me awhile to figure out that she meant "dalu" people, or Mainlanders. By Mainlander, she meant anyone of Han Chinese origin. All "Talu" were, apparently, scoundrels until a few years ago when the government began to promote and preserve aboriginal culture instead of destroying or assimilating it.

She also told me why most aborigines vote KMT - "when we had no food, they took care of us and gave us food. The DPP steals money and doesn't care about aborigines. They only care about their kind of Talu." She agreed that, in fact, the KMT is just as corrupt and steals just as much money as the DPP, but maintains that the DPP doesn't care about her people, so she won't vote for them.

Her accent was quite thick as Mandarin is not her first language; she's a native speaker of the "Taya" tongue.

I noticed one cultural difference that caught me off-guared. We shared some of our Zhudong-purchased fruit and chocolate with her and Susu. They immediately accepted and munched on wax apples and Lishan apples, as well as Meiji chocolate, with relish. I'm so used to the Taiwanese refusing something on the first offer, or even the second, before accepting that it took me a moment to see that there was a legitimate cultural divide here.

There's not a lot to do in Wufeng - it's a small hill town without much of anything except a few houses, a school, a church, the paSta'ai grounds and great views.

Really great views. On the way up, we met groups of Saisiyat who had already begun, ah, celebrating.

By celebrating, of course, I mean drinking home-brewed millet wine. I love millet wine, so I was fine with this, even though I'm sure some of it was brewed in a bathtub somewhere. My sister liked it, too.

She really liked it.

This guy is a tribal chief, so said Ah-Q Mama. He put leaf talismans on our arms or foreheads as well as on our cameras.

Before entering the festival area, we donated money and got these leaf amulets that do - well, something. Ah-Q Mama tried to explain what but Mandarin is neither my first language nor hers (she speaks to her husband, Susu, in their own tribal language which I believe is Atayal), so I wasn't very clear.

The grounds, before night fell.

We ate a delicious dinner of fragrant fish in broth and stinky tofu with a spicy dip...

...served by this very nice woman. (The kid is a proud owner of a blue lightsaber).

There were lots of bonfires, which struck me as dangerous considering all the drinking going on.

The dancing began at 7pm, when few in the audience were still sober. The guy next to us thought it was time to join in and crashed into this group soon after I photographed them, and was then carried away by officiators to the area set up especially for drunk people.

More dancing.

...and while the dancing was great, the best part about it was the party atmosphere - food, drink, merriment and socializing. Millet wine - mostly home-brewed - flowed freely and was openly shared. We tried some good wine, some bad wine, some strong wine, some sour wine and some sweet wine and bought the best of the kinds we sampled to share with our new "friends" in the stands. Above is Emily with her new Saisiyat partying gear.

Everyone was drinking - 13 year olds were sharing bottles. Old folks were dancing. A guy from Taizhong in a colorful do-rag puked into a bag behind us. I guess that's what one can expect at a harvest festival. Every indigenous harvest celebration around the world seems to have one thing in common.


Home-brewed millet wine. The dictionary definition of "tastes like it looks".

The carnival atmosphere at times overshadowed the dancing. With all the drinking and partying going on in mid-November, I bet there are a lot of birthdays in mid-August in the Saisiyat community.

The dance also involves dancing and shaking giant talismans, either to celebrate or call the ta'ai to the festival. I'm not clear on which.

Line dancing! People stay up all night to do this and often do so for three days straight. There are areas in the back where dancers can rest or sleep away the day. At midnight we were allowed to join in the dancing, at which point women in traditional garb came by with buckets of millet wine and poured shots into our mouths. Fun, if unsanitary!

Some people had trouble staying awake past 2am.

At the end of the formal ceremony, just as the crowd was allowed to join in, they had a fire ceremony.

More fire ceremony. After dancing until about 2-3 am we called it a night and headed back to the homestay with Ah-Q Mama and Susu.

Susu feeds the various animals living at the homestay...

...and one of these animals was an adorable orange kitten.

Ah-Q Mama not only is the laobanniang of the homestay, but also makes her own woven goods for sale. We bought a few purses and other items. Both businesses were started with government grant money that a "Talu" helped her secure, so she's OK with them now.

We woke up with horrid hangovers from the home-brewed millet wine, but nothing cures a hangover better than a breakfast of home-grown food, clean air and mountain views.

The cloud sea sets in around 2pm.

Ah-Q and Susu were kind enough to drive us back to Taipei that night for the same fare as the bus plus a hundred extra or was good that they did as I collapsed in the front seat and tried not to vomit for most of the ride. You know it was a good trip when you come back barely standing!

Some Information:

Pasta'ai is held every two years in Wufeng (Jhu Family Village) and Nanzhuang. Wufeng is the more remote celebration, and Nanzhuang is the more well-known one. It usually spans 2-3 nights in late autumn, at the end of the harvest season. To find out exactly when it is on any given year (even numbered years only) you can do an internet search in early autumn or, if you can't read Chinese, have a friend do it for you. Every ten years there is a 'grand ceremony' where the Saisiyat repent killing the ta'ai but I don't know on which year that is held.

To get to Wufeng, take a Guoguang bus to Zhudong. The big bus terminal, across Chongqing Rd. from the West terminal, has buses leaving from Guoguang Bay #17 every 15-25 minutes. This building is shared with Ubus, so walk past the Ubus area to get to Guoguang. Buses run from 6:15amto 10:25pm.

From Zhudong, be sure to be dropped off as close to an actual bus terminal as possible - our friend had to take a taxi 2km because the driver dropped her off on the outskirts. Take a Xinzhu Transport Company (Xinzhu Keyun) bus to Wufeng - some continue to Qingquan, some terminate in Wufeng, and get off at Jhu Family Village - you'll see a crowd. The last bus to the festival departs Zhudong at 6:25pm so come early!

Alternately, you can drive. I wouldn't know anything about that! Catching a taxi or shared car will cost up to $1000 NT one way. The ride to Wufeng is 40 minutes to an hour.

Accommodation is hard to come by - you can either plan to be up all night and catch a morning bus back, arrange transport to a homestay as we did, or stay in the only nearby hotel which, while quite nice, is a long walk from the festival grounds and charges $5000+ per night for a double room.

If you are driving, you can get directions to any one of a number of mountain homestays from the proprietor (or get a Chinese speaking friend to get them for you). Four-person rooms should be in the $2600-$2800/night range.

It is probably possible to catch a ride back to Zhudong by hitching, and possibly even from Zhudong to the festival, but don't plan on that without a backup, and beware that this festival involves a lot of you may not want to be in a car with someone who's been hittin' the home brew behind the wheel.

Food and drink is available at the festival so don't worry about bringing your own. Do bring a flashlight, warm sweater and bug spray.

Nanzhuang is the more well-known of the two sites because it's more publicized and also easier to get to. You can take the train to Zhunan and take a bus from there, and I've also been told by a friend that there is a train all the way there. The last bus departs at 9:30pm for Nanzhuang, but in general there are more transportation and accommodation options.