Wednesday, July 27, 2016

City of My Heart: Part 1


I make no secret of the fact that if it were a viable option, I would live in Tainan. Part of it is the temples and "traditional culture", yes - though I am sure people are sick of that cliche - but my main reasons are a bit different. I like the general feel of the city - I like that people will default to Chinese when speaking to me rather than assume their English is always better than my Chinese (hey, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't). I like that when I meet new people they are more laid-back and unguarded - random locals in temples have been known to give me their calling cards and say to ring them if I need anything...and mean it.

I like the more languid, tropical tempo of life. I like that, despite being further south and in the actual tropics, it's often cooler than Taipei (though I have to make more of an effort to stay out of the sun). It probably has some of the best weather in Taiwan: I don't count Taichung because that concrete jungle has always struck me as more smoggy than pleasant. I like the food scene quite a bit. I'm a fan of the hip culture popping up around town as artists, designers, aspiring cafe owners and "digital nomad" types settle in what is a cheaper and more manageable city. And, yeah, I feel like I "get" Tainan politically, and it gets me.


I also love Tainan because it's where Brendan and I decided to try out the idea of a relationship. I wouldn't say we 'started dating' as we never really dated - we went from being best friends to being an exclusive couple immediately. You always harbor a bit of a soft spot in your heart for the place where you got together with the love of your life. (I would say "the place where you met the love of your life" but that would be the Thurston Hall basement computer lab freshman year of college and I can't say I have a soft spot in my heart for that particular place). A decade of friendship and best-friendship in which we danced around our ebbing and flowing, sometimes-mutual-sometimes-scared feelings for each other, and it was Tainan that brought us together. Also good timing and the fact that we could finally act and communicate like adults. That helped too. But also Tainan. How could I not love that?

So, it is not only figuratively the city of my heart. I don't remember which of my Tainan photos are from our trip there the first weekend he moved here, and which are from his parents' visit a little later on, but let's just go ahead and say that this one is from that first trip.

So yes, including those two trips and another trip later when I was sent down for a seminar, I had been to Tainan three times before ever blogging it. I still can't say I've seen everything the city has to offer.


I can't move there, though, first because my job doesn't exist there - I don't want to teach in a typical buxiban and I don't want to teach kids, at least not primarily - and second because I do value public transportation. It's not just a preference, it's a dealbreaker. A value. I want to live my values, and that includes taking public transit rather than smogging up the atmosphere with a stinky, loud, annoying and dangerous scooter. Also I'm a terrible city driver, you do not want me to drive in a city and I do not feel comfortable doing so, for your own safety.


So, you can imagine how chuffed I was after five years of not visiting to have two opportunities to spend the weekend in Tainan: first to take my cousin down there for the Yanshui fireworks festival, and second as an add-on weekend after a Friday seminar (yay for business travel that makes vacation planning easy!)

For ease of posting I've decided to roll these two separate visits into one connected narrative, but will feature them in two posts just because I have so many photos to share.

For our first trip, back in February, we took my cousin Blake down to Tainan for a day or so then Yanshui for the fireworks festival. I had previously been on the fence as to whether I wanted to go to this particular festival not out of fear of getting hurt (though that does happen), but because apparently not everyone in town thinks the local temple god actually likes said festival.

Then, I thought about it and realized that, well, I'm an atheist. As I see it, that temple god is an extension of the imaginations of the people who believe in him. Therefore, he likes whatever they say he likes, because he doesn't actually exist. It's only rude and disrespectful to him if they say it is, and they clearly don't think so.

So while some people may think the fireworks festival is displeasing to that particular god, other people clearly feel differently, and it's not really for me to decide who's right - and in fact, from my perspective, both sides are, and neither are. That's how it is with something that was invented by people and exists in their minds. So, as enough people think that the fireworks festival is inoffensive to the gods and as it doesn't offend my morals, which unlike, say, the dog meat festival in China, it doesn't, in the end I decided I was OK with going.

I would like to go back during the day someday, however, to check out the old street and other assorted architecture.

Old Marlboro advertisement outside of Tung Ning Hostel

On this trip we stayed at the Tung Ning Hostel - Brendan and I got a room (all bathrooms are shared however) and my sister and cousin got hostel beds. I do recommend it - in the low season it's very inexpensive and has a lovely old Taiwan charm to it. The owner/manager is extremely friendly, and one can find hot water, tea and sweets in the common area, whose vintage decoration matches the property's age.

Everyone says Tainan is about temples - they call it the "Kyoto of Taiwan" (which I think is kind of over-selling it, but I've never been to Kyoto). Accordingly, we took my cousin to a pile of different temples, to the point that I think he got kind of bored with them (I never get bored with temples). I had been hoping to run into a festival  - and we got a small one with sexy temple dancers - but no luck on a bigger procession. In one day we hit up Chihkan Towers (not technically a temple but there is a shrine to the Literature God, Wenchang (文昌帝君), the Matsu temple, the God of War temple, the City God temple and the Confucius temple before chilling in the Hayashi (Lin) department store, having various beef dishes at 阿村牛肉湯, going to the Flower Garden Night Market (花園夜市) and buying cheap motorcycle helmets for the next day's festival. On our second day before departing for Yanshui, we went to Shennong Street (神農街), the Wind God temple (風神廟), hung out at a cafe that now appears to have closed down, and bought military surplus gear.

阿村牛肉湯 (A-Tsun's Beef Soup)
#41 Bao An Road
West Central District


If you go at dinnertime prepare to line up.


One of the big downsides to Tainan is the near complete lack of public transportation. This means that if you are a sane person who wouldn't be caught dead (sometimes literally dead) on a scooter in an urban area, you have to either walk or take taxis strategically. Tainan is reasonably compact but not compact enough that you can get away with just walking everywhere, so we did hop taxis several times on this trip. It adds up, and if Tainan wants to attract a larger population and more tourists, they are going to have to build better public transit infrastructure. Like any at all - I am told city buses exist but I have honestly never seen one.


Being near Lantern Festival (the Yanshui Fireworks Festival is on 元宵節 or Lantern Festival), there were lanterns strung up all over the city which appeared to have been created for a lantern decorating contest. Although there were no processions the day we were there, the quieter streets strung up with these lanterns gave the city a cozy, unique feel.



One thing I love to do when traveling around Taiwan is collect smashed pennies from those machines. In Tainan you buy a blank copper piece that comes with a little case and put it in the machine, unlike other cities where you have to insert your own NT$1 coin along with the fee to smash and press a pattern on it.

What do I do with them? I make jewelry! Being stretched out, the metal is really easy to poke a hole in with a hammer and small nail. I don't go to the lengths the person linked here does - I prefer the shiny copper look for one - but anyway, once you have holes in your pressed coins it's fairly easy to make whatever you want.


I'm not going to say a lot about the various temples and historic sites we took Blake to - you can read any number of guidebooks, and we missed as many as we saw as we didn't want to temple him out. But what I will say about Tainan is that I love how there is a sense of pleasant, easygoing eccentricity about the place. I love that you can walk down the otherwise-normal streets and find all manner of odd, interesting or unique things. You can do that in many cities of course, but there seem to be more of them in Tainan, and somehow they capture my heart a bit more, too. For example, randomly coming across someone making those larger-than-life god statues for temples:



...or this sticker which I still don't really understand:


...or a small turtle riding a large turtle:


...or this fantastically creepy sign:


...or a monkey riding a lobster. Which has got to be some allusion to Chinese literature I am unaware of (Journey to the West had a monkey, so maybe?) but even so, it's a monkey riding a lobster.


...or the various things people write on wish placards and other prayer paraphernalia at temples:


...or these, which can be found all over Taiwan but I happen to like this one in particular:


Tainan is known by some as something of a heartland for sexy temple dancers, and this trip did not disappoint. I do not intend to judge, or laugh, or crack jokes - I think they're great. I mean, clearly the dancers choose to do this and seem to enjoy it, and it's a robust part of local culture, so I say carry on with your sexy selves.

Blake was also a fan (obviously). We mused on how it was not that much different to pole dance for a temple than to join a youth group or some church activity in the US - things we had done, or had been made to do, as children. Could you imagine if "sexy dancing for Jesus" was one of the activities at, say, Springfield Presbyterian Church that you could join? That would have been awesome. But no, our cultures are destined to be different.

It is, however, a strong indicator of how Taiwan is not as conservative as people (who don't know Taiwan) think it is, or rather, that Taiwanese culture can't even really be measured on a Western liberal-conservative spectrum.



Lots of cake for the gods - so much cake. I want to be a god. 

A bit more street-level eccentricity:

Boy For Sale



In fact I had thought the shop in the photo below was just odd, since my last trip I realize it's a cafe and actually a pretty good one (the sandwich I had was mediocre but the coffee was pretty good and they have beer). It's called Taikoo, and they are technically in two buildings. This one, the cafe, is on Kangle and Shennong streets, whereas a quick walk down Shennong will bring you to their second location, within sight of the first, which is more of a bar and gets hopping at night. The link above is for the bar, but the cafe is not hard to find.

Taikoo 太古
#94 Shennong Street (bar) and Shennong and Kangle intersection (cafe), Tainan


We went to the Wind God temple - one of my favorites for the old arch out front, also, it isn't a common god to find a temple to - before wandering down Shennong Street, which is in the newly hip part of town and looking in a few shops. It was deadly hot and we were all exhausted at that point, so we went to a cafe called Vegane for lunch. Delicious noodles with vegetables and vegan dressings, sadly, when I returned last month they seemed to be out of business.


Come my brothers! Today we win our freedom!

We made a few mistakes in shopping for our fireworks festival clothing. First, we should have taken care of it in Taipei where we know our way around better - we probably could have gotten better, thicker protective gear than the military surplus jackets we found. They were okay, but too light: a firework went right through the sleeve of Blake's and got him in the wrist. The motorcycle helmets - which we later gave away at the Really Really Free Market because we don't ride scooters - were also fine, but I recommend that you find the sort that has a bit of helmet under the visor (like this one) rather than ones where the helmet ends with the visor (like this one).

Why? Because to be truly protected you have to tape a towel around the bottom of the helmet and if you do that with the open face helmets, you have to tape the towel to the visor, which means you can't lift the visor. That means you are stuck in a hot, sweaty, towel-covered helmet that you can't safely take off around the fireworks. Also, you'll be basically blind as the helmets steam up after a few minutes. Not a fun time. If you have the closed kind, you tape the towel around the bottom but can still get some air by opening the visor, which can be quickly shut when things get dangerous again.


So, the thing about this fireworks festival was that Lantern festival was technically on Monday, but we couldn't stay until Monday. We'd heard that the town would also host it on Sunday, so we went for that. We noticed that the dancers at the night market were the same troupe we'd seen the day before near the City God temple:


We missed the first go-around of the fireworks trucks, being unclothed in our hot, heavy gear and helmets. But, after running after anything vaguely sounding like fireworks, we finally found a procession far from the festival night market and temple activity. I was quite pleased about this: for awhile it felt like we were going to miss the actual fireworks, which would be disappointing for Blake who can't just come back.

See what I mean? Hot, sweaty and blind. Buy better helmets. 

Being related, my sister, Blake and I all have the genes to do stupid risky things. Blake got the closest to the fireworks being shot out of the carts, so he's the one who got hit. I got whacked a few times too, which is why I don't have more photos. It looks and feels something like this:


Brendan, who is a bit more risk-averse and doesn't like hot thrumming crowds, hung back.

Oh, another piece of advice? Don't wear sneakers, wear boots. The most painful hits were on my feet. I noticed the locals who were participating where sort of dancing and shuffling up and down as the firecrackers sprayed them, which seems like a reasonable way to deal with the feeling of being hit with a barrage of tiny hot pebbles. At least one person caught on fire, but he was okay.

Another smart thing to do is bring a big spray bottle full of water, and keep spraying yourself down, especially your towel (you do NOT want the cloth around your neck near your head to catch on fire while it is taped to your head protection).


Lots of local photographers, with varying levels of protection (some folks had full firemen's surplus uniforms which seems like a smart idea that I should have thought of). I am not sure, however, that cardboard is the best protective choice from a flaming projectile:


This plastic doesn't seem like it's going to do the trick either, but maybe he knows better than I do:


Another reason I was not worried about disrespecting any gods? Plenty of temple affiliates brought their own idols to face the fire.



The easiest way to get to Yanshui is to take the local train from Tainan and get off at Xinying, which is the nearest stop. Then take a taxi (it won't cost more than NT$200) to Yanshui itself. The taxi should know where to drop you off. If you want to do the fireworks then return to Taipei late at night, there is a late night train and we managed to get tickets about an hour before it left (which I think was 3am?). We made a 7-11 run, got on the train and slept fitfully all the way back to Taipei. Then we slept some more. Except for Brendan, whose Yanshui night market dinner made him sick. You don't want details. The details involve noodles. You really don't want to know.

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