Friday, January 20, 2012

Dihua Street Holiday Market: Year of the Dragon

So I have a camera again. Brendan  dug out his old pro Canon EOS 350D, found the old memory card and charger for it, and has been letting me lug it around town to take lots of great pictures.

The upside is that unlike my old camera, which was good but not the best, this is a real pro machine. They say that it's not what camera you use, it's who's behind the camera (incidentally, they say the same thing about professional musical instruments), and there's a lot of truth to that. On the other hand, I'm still me. Same woman behind the camera, and yet, the photos I've been taking with this giant hulk of a machine are worlds better than what I got out of my dinky little camera. I mean, check out the depth of focus on that first shot. I couldn't do that with my old camera.

The downside is that this thing is heavy and conspicuous. No more quietly taken from-the-hip candids or quick shots. Everyone in a ten mile radius can see that THIS WHITE GIRL IS TAKING A PICTURE. This leads to more posed faces, although I appreciate that people make goofy faces instead of smiling moronically. It's definitely heavier than I'd like. I can't just throw it in my purse. Heck, it doesn't even fit in my messenger bag!

But, it is what it is and I do enjoy the privilege of using a good, solid camera for the time being. It's good enough that in the future, even after I get a tiny digital camera again, I'll probably take it out for fun.        

My first round with this camera was on Dihua Street. We went to the holiday market yesterday - I naively thought that being a weekday afternoon, the crowds wouldn't be so choking. I was wrong. I'm terrified of what it will be like on Saturday. We have the week off and precious little to do other than painting our apartment, so we bought some snacks to enjoy, which will help it feel like it's really Chinese New Year for us and we're celebrating in some small way.

Any foreigner stuck in Taipei on CNY with nothing to do would do well to visit the market before Monday - it'll infuse you with a bit of holiday spirit. Assuming you are OK with crowds, of course.

Everything is sold here, from snack food you can eat right away to canned and jarred goods to dried snacks - the dried vegetables, especially the garlic cloves, are a favorite of mine to ingredients to cook full meals to pre-cooked packed food to clothing to housewares to decorations.

I'm guessing a lot of this stuff gets purchased to either feed relatives descending on one's house while they wait for dinner or watch CNY television specials or is bought by the descending relatives themselves to add to the feast ("Hi Grandma! We brought egg tarts!").

This reminds me of my own family Christmases where we'd show up at Grandma's with cookies, a bowl of hummus, cheese and sausage or whatever else we felt we should contribute. I always made the hummus.

My first run up the street, with Brendan, the camera bag and my purse - and our purchases - in tow, wasn't that fruitful. After leaving Brendan at a coffeeshop - the one outside that's attached to Yongle fabric market - with our bags, I went back up with just my two hands, empty pockets and the camera and did much better.

One thing you can usually see a lot of at the market - as anywhere that's crowded in Taiwan - are people with their small dogs. I'm not sure how the dogs deal with the crowds, but they generally don't seem to mind. Once, I saw a cat at this market. Not a stray cat, mind you, but a couple who brought their giant fluffy orange-and-white cat with huge green eyes to the Dihua holiday market and carried him around like a dog. I can guess what the cat thought of this.

The vendors that sell everything from red envelopes to vacuum-packed squid to peanuts - we bought some of these fiery fried peanuts in seasoned chili powder  (YUM) often wear costumes. These run from the relatively tame qipao dresses that the peanut ladies are wearing to full-on costume insanity.

My personal favorite are the promoters who dress up like the thing that their stands are selling and loudly point you to where you can buy a non-anthropomorphic version of them. My least favorite are the ones who just stand there with a megaphone or bullhorn extolling the virtues of buying their dried squid over, say, A-chen's down the road.

In previous years, I'd thought of the crowds at Dihua Street to be a detriment, not a bonus. This year, as I was riding the human wave with just my camera, it finally hit me - no, this is what the holiday market is all about. It's no fun if it's not crowded. OK, it could be slightly less crowded, but I think a bit of a glut of people is what makes it so much fun. When I was in China, we went to a similar, but smaller, market in Sichuan (we traveled overland from Chengdu back to Guizhou and had a blast along the way). It had people but wasn't crowded. It wasn't nearly as much fun. That was nice, but Dihua Street is the real deal.

Even when crossing the street is an ordeal!

The dried goods are my personal favorite. Dried vegetables - which you can eat like potato chips as you lie to yourself pretending that they are healthy (they are not - they're dried, yes, and they're vegetables, but somewhere in the process they had unholy relations with a deep fryer and never looked back. Fortunately the deep-fryer/vegetable love child is a tasty little morsel). I bought a bunch of these and plan sit on my ever-fattening ass all week when I'm not painting, nom nom nomming on their delicious goodness. My favorites are the mushrooms, apples and garlic cloves.

I plan to write later - possibly later today, seeing as my class postponed and my Chinese New Year vacation began yesterday - about the times when I feel like I'm in a liminal space as an expat. Christmas is one of those times. Elections are another. Chinese New Year is a third. Major events that I can't participate in the way I would back home, or the way people do here. I can recognize them, watch them, be a part of them in a very borderline way but in the end they serve to highlight the ways in which I am not totally a part of any one society of people, and I think that might be true of most expats.

So, going to the holiday market helps me feel less liminal, less borderline, less nominal, less whatever-Latin-term-for-there-but-only-on-the-edges.

It helps that everyone there is in a festive mood. It lifts my spirits and makes me feel more welcome, more participative. One thing that is universal is festivity. You see cute things:

You get free samples:

Dihua Street's market is all about the samples - you could fill up on them just walking down the street. Everything that's not in a can, jar or bottle has a sample on offer, and even stuff that is packed up is often put out in little cups or with toothpicks, or brewed if it's a drink for you to try. No - really no - obligation to buy.

You get lost in the crowd:

You see some interesting things:

...and you can pick up a few new items to munch on or for your apartment. It's a great time to update or add to dishware and other housewares. Good selection and a lot of it is affordable Japanese-style ceramic or china which is fun and funky to use at home.

So, with that, I'll leave you with a few more photos. Something to enjoy if you didn't make it to the market this year, or you just don't want to go because it's too crowded.


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