Showing posts with label old_taipei. Show all posts
Showing posts with label old_taipei. Show all posts

Sunday, November 17, 2019

A half-day wander in the Beitou backstreets


At some point in the past few weeks, I ended up with something called a "Bakers cyst" (discovered by a guy named Baker), which is a fluid cyst that develops when there's too much strain on the knee. Whether it was my trip to Europe - and all the stairs and cobblestones - or going to the gym too much, I have no idea.

In any case, that means minimal stairs, lots of rest and no hiking for awhile. Instead, to get a little easy exercise and enjoy the beautiful weather this weekend, a friend and I headed up to Beitou to check out some of its older architecture. Not Xinbeitou with its glorious Japanese-era pavilions, temples and buildings, but the flat area of Beitou which has no hills that could pose a challenge to my knee.

Beitou doesn't have a wealth of exciting old buildings to see, but its backstreets are pleasantly old-school in a way that reminds me of the quieter parts of Tainan city. There are, however, a few things worth taking a look at if you're in the neighborhood.


We started out walking towards the Lady Zhou memorial arch, built in the 19th century by local officials to honor Lady Zhou, whose husband died young and who apparently "kept her chastity intact" while taking care of her late husband's parents and raising their children. While I'm not on board with this particular kind of morality, the arch itself is interesting an in an atmospheric little lane next to a quirky temple.

Lady Zhou Memorial Gate (周氏節孝坊) is easy to find on Google Maps.


The lane is pleasant enough that you might feel inclined to relax on one of the stone pylons meant to stop cars from driving under the arch, or sit on the inviting benches of the temple. The temple itself is small and features a variety of scenes from folk stories painted on the bathroom-tile walls.



The houses in this lane are worth your notice as well, although they are not as immediately eye-catching as the baroque shophouses on Taiwan's old streets. Lovely details such as attractively painted window screens, unique bannisters on balconies, plants that give the lane some leafy atmosphere and generally just a quiet neighborhood feel make this area very pleasant. Being extremely close to the MRT, this is the sort of place I'd love to buy someday and renovate with original features intact. Sadly, though these sorts of homes look normal, they're extremely expensive now, well out of my budget (especially considering the sorts of renovations I'd want to do to make the home modern and comfortable but period-appropriate).


Then we went looking for a few more old houses that were said to still exist on Datong Street nearby. What we found instead was a kind of neighborhood junkyard, and the locals there informed us that the buildings had been torn down some time ago. There was one left in bad condition off to the side, but was basically just a backdrop to heaps of junk at that point. It's a shame, as Beitou could probably bring in more visitors - the kind who are actually interested in local history - if it kept and maintained these sorts of buildings.

Next door, we came across an old temple not on our list, the Chen Family Ancestral Hall (陳氏祠堂, also findable on Google Maps), across the street from the adorable-looking Slipper Cafe. The hall itself is fronted by an attractive old gate, but then you have to pass through a shaded car park. The ancestral worship areas are at the back, behind a locked gate which is surrounded by piles of junk, and near the car park is a place to eat that has a sign extolling the importance of protecting the environment.

Someone from the Chen family, or perhaps just a local uncle hanging out, let us in. The tablets themselves are backed by a pretty cool hand-painted dragon - yes, we asked permission before photographing it. 


There are also some lovely old paintings on wooden sideboards and an atmospherically neglected shrine to the right.

It's not a place to go out of your way to visit by any means, but it makes for a pleasant stop on a relaxed city walking day if you happen to pass by. Which, to be honest, is the case with most temples, shrines and ancestral halls.



We then walked up to Beitou Market, which is a bit loud and disorganized but has a few places to eat and at least one tea vendor selling lemon pineapple tea with chunks of pineapple (which was far too sweet but also delicious). There's also a guy selling Oreo and Rocher wheel cakes. Near the market, on Guangming Road very close to the MRT (you can see the station down the road) you'll also pass a few old shophouses from what I guess was once the main market street, which have been taken over by a Cosmed. 


On one hand, I'm happy that these old structures are continuing to be used (and not necessarily turned into yet another tacky tourist shop, not that tourists come to this part of Beitou, as they usually head up the mountain instead). On the other, that is one hell of an ugly sign. 


Near Beitou Market is the Beitou Presbyterian Church (長老教會北投教堂), built in 1912 and designed by William Gauld. It's the only surviving 20th-century church designed by Gauld, and its congregation was initially mostly local plains indigenous. It has brick and cement buttresses to protect against earthquakes, but there's no easy way to get in if it's closed (the gate, however, seems to be left open most of the time so you can walk right up to it). 


One thing we missed was the old Beitou Granary on Datong Street, not far from the Chen Family Ancestral Hall, simply because I hadn't known it was there until I researched our route a little bit after our walk. Built in the 1930s, it was (as you might guess) a grain distribution center during the Japanese era. Apparently the original wooden roof and the old rice mill are still extant. I guess I'll have to return to check it out.

We then set out for one of the last remaining two-story traditional houses in Taipei, which is down a lane off Qingjiang Road (I believe Lane 113).

The lanes in this area are highly atmospheric and worth a walk on their own, before you get to a dirt path through a small urban farm, past a few old brick houses - some in very poor condition - and one that is still lived in. The main road itself is a bit more hectic but I did appreciate the creepy mannequins in one store.



In this area you can see a lot of structures that were clearly once Japanese-era shophouses but which have been tiled over. While the tile is ugly, I'm happy the structures have survived. I do hope someday the aesthetic trend of removing tiles and refurbishing original exteriors will become more popular (the equivalent of tearing up '80s shag carpet to find hardwood floors underneath).


They do have a cute dog though.




Unfortunately, the house itself was not accessible. There was no clear way in, and the path was blocked by another old house with a guardrail around it that was clearly intended to keep trespassers off. This is a section of wall from the outside. At least the slightly overgrown garden area made the whole place very atmospheric in the late afternoon. 


As with many traditional Taiwanese houses, it's hard to see what the main house looks like from the road. We're clearly not the first wanderers who've tried to get in, but this person was obviously more successful. Here's what we missed:

Screen Shot 2019-11-17 at 12.01.24 PM

To be honest, after finding this house, we got a little lost, though we never went too far from the MRT. I couldn't really tell you where I took these photos, except to say that they're so close to the MRT that you could hear the signals of the train doors closing, and there's at least one place (closed when we came by) that appears to be a cafe/bookstore/place where hipsters hang out.

Don't worry though, that whole area is atmospheric and if you wander enough, you're sure to come across it.

I especially enjoyed running into the cat, and the mosaic bird detail on some random person's adorable house.

Again, totally the sort of house I'd like to buy and renovate to keep touches like that intact while turning it into a comfortable living space. I have small dreams - I never wanted a mansion - but in my generation, to even do this one needs to be loaded, and it's still a shame that I'm not rich. 





Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Taipei: The New Old Berlin

So I was reading this article about how Berlin has changed and, as I read it, something about the old, pre-cool Berlin that the writer describes felt familiar.

I can't point to any one quote that captured this for me, just an overall feeling - a modern, capitalist, free city (well, half-free) that was not particularly inviting to outsiders, was off the beaten track, and was full of grubby neighborhoods that you could live in if you wanted cheap rent. If you were there it was because you wanted to be there, and not anywhere else, but anyone who wanted to be anywhere else generally did not give Berlin a second look. The "beautiful people" were in other cities (London, Paris, Milan).

And I realized, it reminded me of Taipei now. Taipei is not particularly cool. It doesn't have the cachet with Westerners that Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong or Tokyo (or more recently, Seoul) do, or even Bangkok or Singapore. Tourists from other parts of Asia come here but it is not a global tourist hotspot by any standard, and wasn't a tourist hotspot at all until Chinese tourism opened up. You are here because you want to be here - at least I am here for that reason - and not anywhere else. It's very local, and looming just across the straight is a massive Communist threat. I highly doubt Chinese missiles are going to rain down on my head anytime soon, but some days you can't help but wonder and be reminded of that during the occasional air raid drills. The beautiful people are in those other cities, and with them their beautiful overpriced nightspots and commercialized bar and restaurant scenes.

It can be nice and shiny and new - look at Xinyi (or don't - I kind of prefer not to). But entire neighborhoods are a bit grubby, and you have to look more deeply to find their charms (which they do have). It's so cool because it's not cool at all.

And, like that older version of Berlin, you have to work to understand it, and you might not always like it at first. You may remember that I did not really like Taipei when I first arrived. It was hard - foreigners generally make friends with coworkers when they first land but I didn't care for most of mine (the ones I liked I still didn't feel that close to, and they have pretty much all since left Taiwan). I cried on my birthday, after eating dinner alone at a terrible Indian restaurant, two weeks after arriving, on the Muzha line MRT because I could look down through rain-streaked windows at people on the street all going somewhere they belonged and probably seeing people who cared about them in lives that were anchored in some way, and I had none of those things.  It took another year or so before I felt like Taipei was alright, and probably another year after that before I began to really feel it, and Taiwan, was someplace special.

As an aside, so far I can count on one hand the number of people who know why this blog is called Lao Ren Cha. There is no special reason why I don't publish the reason publicly other than I never really felt like it. The people who know I felt, for whatever reasons I had at the time, deserved to know. Some still do! But, it's not a big deep secret, and perhaps someday I will write about that. What I'll say now is that it was very much intentional - not just a pretty name - and is very much directly related to my experiencing Taipei first in a muddy, dark, monochromatic sepia and only later a stunning, clear azure blue. It took more time than you would ever think such a thing would require.

And I'm not alone - when my cousin visited recently and stayed for a semester, he took time to adjust too. At first absorbing everything, then feeling a bit down due to the unrelentingly bad weather, then finally realizing one day that he had a solid group of friends and that Taipei was a super cool city to be in. The Taipei effect is not immediate.

I do wonder, as Taipei gets cooler - maybe not Seoul-level cooler but cooler nonetheless, with its plethora of perfect little cafes and increasing number of tour buses, increasing rents and gentrifying neighborhoods if it will start to become a victim of its own coolness. Part of me hopes it will bypass the Brooklyn effect, as it feels like it's already become too expensive to truly be a hip haven - and all the cool kids are already taking advantage of the better weather and cheaper rents in Tainan.

I wonder, I guess, if in 10 years (assuming I am still here, which I may be), what was an off-the-beaten track choice for building a life in Asia will start to be THE place to be and it will start to lose some of its street-level vibrancy and slightly grubby charm. Will I feel like that disaffected old expat in 10 years, complaining about all the new kids and how "this city isn't what it used to be"?

Yes, I do realize expats before me have already said that, but I wasn't here then so LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU.

Part of me wants Taipei to get that international recognition. Part of me wants it to stay the way it is.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Cool MRT Art (For Once)

I know that's a little unfair - I do kind of like the art at NTU Hospital Station, after all, especially the weird entwined-fingers-and-palms bench.

But otherwise, the MRT seems to be a repository for weird hanging things, fiberglass primary color sculptures without much hidden meaning, sometimes-good, sometimes-not art from winners of local contests, terribly-photoshopped advertisements, and occasional poetry (again from some local contest), most of which I don't particularly care for.

I passed one small bit of public art, though, at Zhongxiao Fuxing Station on the mezzanine above the blue line, that I really liked. 


It's a cartoonish MRT train (eh), but in each window is a lovely diorama depicting different scenes of life in Taipei, with both modern and historical street scenes - in some cases intertwined. There's a night market:


A school building rife with Chiang Kai-shek iconography:


A Dihua-like Old Street:


A shadowbox of evolution from mom-and-pop midcentury store to convenience store:


...and more.

I often lament that the East District, which feels like it's slowly taking over Taipei with its shiny storefronts and air-conditioned department stores, has little of interest. Little to no good public art, few if any historical buildings, and a lot of expensive crap I don't want or need (and a lot of expensive bars I don't care for). I've always preferred looking westward in Taipei - West of Xinsheng/Songjiang and I may like it, east of Xinsheng and I probably don't.

This little smidge of public art proved that it's not all doom and gloom - there are still occasionally bits of actual culture as you head east. It's not all Sogos and Luxys.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Throwdown: Taipei vs. Shanghai


So, last month we took advantage of the 48-hour transit visa allowance for foreigners transiting between countries via Shanghai. It was a great way to see the city without all the expense and trouble of getting a Chinese visa. Which, you know, is a lot of expense and trouble (I know, I'm American, I can't imagine how difficult it must be for a lot of Chinese to get visas to the USA - glass houses and all).

Before our trip had really begun, as we left Shanghai for New York, I was casually offered a job there while stretching my legs at the front of the plane and chatting with other passengers. Another friend said that during her visit to Shanghai, she had a job opportunity pop up too. Both would have been very well paid. For all the speculation on the Chinese economy, one thing is for certain: if you're talented and want to make it in Shanghai these days, you can.

And yet, this post is not my announcement that we're moving to Shanghai. I'm still here in Taipei. The thought though - the fact that it would be so easy to just make that happen, prompted me to consider the relative merits of the two cities. Why do I choose to stay in Taipei? What's the pull? What about Shanghai would be better? Let's take a look.

Because that's how my photos appeared, let's start with architecture/general environment:


That's a classic shot of The Bund, but people generally don't go to The Bund every day. That said, Shanghai is peppered, and not just in the French Concession, with gorgeous old buildings that have mostly been preserved:



These two are at the popular spots of Nanjing E. Road (above) and the heart of the French Concession (below). But there's more to it than that:


I love Taipei's older buildings and Japanese-built brick shophouses. I love the charm of the Western end of the city. And yet, I have to give this one to Shanghai: Taipei has its share of heritage buildings and charming architecture, but Shanghai has more of it, and it's more accessible throughout the city. Sorry Taipei.


The famous Yuyuan Gardens

Yuyuan Gardens' Starbucks gives you a good view of the tourist mayhem outside

Shanghai isn't the most tourism-site packed city in China. It's got a few great things (a fantastic museum, some shopping areas, People's Square, Yuyuan Gardens, Nanjing E. Road, The Bund, the river cruises) but it doesn't have, say, a great, I dunno, wall or anything like that. You could fill up a few days in Shanghai doing touristy stuff, but beyond that, it's a city to live in rather than visit.

That said...everyone seems to visit it anyway. I don't blame them - it really is a cool city. What this means, though, is hordes of tourists - more than you'll see at the National Palace Museum, Sun Moon Lake, Taroko Gorge or Taipei 101 - jammin' up Yuyuan Gardens and bringing out the touts. We got approached so many times by people who would just not leave us alone: "HEY LADY! Watch? You buy watch! WATCH WATCH WATCH WATCH WATCH! Watch!!!!" "Excuse me, can you take our picture?" (as a ruse to get you into a teahouse that will extort huge sums from you for a 'tea ceremony'), people approaching us with everything from fancy laser pointers to changepurses to in line skates (?) every minute or so. It got tiring. One thing I like about Taipei is that while there are tourists, I can enjoy the city unmolested. Point: Taipei.

Money Money Money $$$:


There are a quadjillion job opportunities in Shanghai, and with some of 'em you can make bank. Especially in recent years, a lot of my students who used to take business trips to Guangzhou now take them to the Shanghai area (more like Kunshan). It is, basically, the closest thing the world has to a Land of Opportunity right now. I don't know how long-termers deal with visas (can one even get permanent residency in China? Not Hong Kong - I know that's possible after 7 years - but China?) but if that's what you want - make it here, so you can make it anywhere - Shanghai's the place for you. I could quite possibly land my white butt up at the airport and get myself a corporate training or in-house position like...snap. That quick.

On the other side, my poor beloved Taipei. I *heart* you, Taipei, but your job market sucks. Unemployment is low, but underemployment is ridiculous (I'd emphasize that with a "ricockulous", but I'm pretty sure that went out of style 8-10 years ago. Young ones, what say you?). Almost everyone I know, including several of my colleagues and peers, and pretty much every Taiwanese person I know, is both underpaid and underemployed, with the bonus of being overworked. There's no end in sight: the government clearly doesn't give a damn. They think cut-rate skilled labor makes Taiwan "competitive". No, it just causes brain drain, stagnation and unrest. What I wouldn't give for a minute with Ma Ying-jiu to tell him exactly what I thought of his governance. I know I'm not the only one.

I mean, just don't even get me started on the job market for English training in Taipei. There are opportunities, but a lot of companies seem to think skilled corporate trainers should be happy with NT$60,000 or so a month (that's not my wage, if you're curious, but I'll stop there) or less than $1000 an hour depending on the contract offered. No, dude. I've worked my way up in this career and acquired mad skillz so I could get paid, not so I could be your butt monkey. I figure either freelance work or in-house training would be a better deal, so that's what I'm keeping an eye out for. I'm done with companies that would farm me out to different businesses and then pay me a (laughable) cut of the fee.

And why is all the skilled labor in Taiwan willing to work so hard for so little? Why? They think they have no choice. I hope it does erupt into real unrest. Maybe a rash of organizing, unionizing and strikes. Like "The Jungle" except without the mutilations and canned meat. Then maybe something will change.

In short: I love you Taipei, but no. Shanghai wins. Stay in Taipei if you love Taipei. I do. But if you want to really make it...go to Shanghai.


Shanghai has more and better Western and international options than Taipei, but the convenience store food can be downright gross (do NOT buy a sushi roll in a Shanghai Family Mart - and don't say you weren't warned. JESUS.) There aren't a lot of convenience stores, and there are very few street food choices. As a colleague once said to me: "in Taiwan it's like, if you want food, good food, just walk out on the street. It's practically on display - 'look at all our food! Come eat! Food!' In China it's like a mile of wall and then some dead buildings. Maybe a bank or some other shop. But no food. I was walking around and I was all like, ' the food?' Even searching for breakfast - near People's Square so we weren't sequestered off in the middle of nowhere or anything - I had to walk for several minutes longer than I would have in Taipei to pick up food and coffee, and even then I ended up at a Cafe 85.

We ate well in Shanghai - that dinner at Jesse was truly memorable, the crab changed my life - but otherwise, Taipei wins. Better food and more of it. You don't even have to look for it. And you can get that crab in Taipei if you want.

I mean, even when there is street food, they imitate Taiwan!





Both cities have their interesting characters - just see above - but I don't think anyone would argue that Shanghai has friendlier people, or even as friendly people - in Taipei. A friend of mine went to Shanghai for five days recently and said that people were not only brusque and unsmiling, they were downright rude - brushing her off even after asking something in Chinese. People warned us that service in restaurants was not exactly like what we've come to expect in Taipei. There are those ever-irritating "WATCH WATCH HEY LADY YOU BUY WATCH" people, too.

I didn't find Shanghai people quite that rude, however. Employees at restaurants and bars were mannered enough, although maybe not as inherently nice as those in Taipei (and let's be honest, there are some real jerks in Taipei). Nobody openly brushed me off. I did get the sense, however, that if I lived in Shanghai people would generally not be as friendly or welcoming as Taipei. It might well take me a lot longer to make local friends. I also get the feeling that there's a larger contingent of shady expats, just because there are more expats overall. I got the feeling there'd be more "I'll be polite to you, but we'll never be close because you foreigners can't understand our 5,000 years of Chinese culture" than in Taipei.

Winner: Taipei. Not even a contest.


Shanghai's subway is fine, but it closes far too early in a city with more expensive cabs. Some trains leave their origin station as early as 10:30. What the what? Taipei isn't much better, but the buses make some sense, the trains close at midnight, the MRT system is beautiful and clean, and taxis are cheap. Taipei wins.


Glamour Bar at M on the Bund

This is a tough one. Shanghai has cooler bars, a more international scene, more places to go, and a greater variety of choices. That said, those choices seem to be overrun with expats (not always a bad thing unless it's a meat market, which in Taipei it often is), are definitely too crowded and cover charges and drink prices are ridiculous. They rival New York. You have to wait awhile to get into some places. I've never had to wait in Taipei, and I rarely have to pay a cover charge. Drinks are not cheap, but not horribly expensive either. You can go out for a night in Taipei and not ruin yourself. The only time we went and got truly ripped at Saints & Sinners (a friend had just lost her job and was in a bad place) with a group, and got the insane bill, it was $8000NT ($260 US or so) for 5 people. That's not too bad, seeing as I collapsed on a pool table at one point.

But...but...cardamom mojitos! Try finding a regular mojito in Taipei! (you can, by the way: China White has them. But at that place you feel like you should be doing lines in the bathroom or the staff'll kick you out).

But..Taipei has a whiskey bar and I can actually afford to go to it!

Score: tie.


Don't even get me started. You can't see the end of the runway at the airport most days in Shanghai. It's not as bad as Beijing, but Taipei wins.


Well, I couldn't check Facebook or Blogger and had trouble with gmail (it worked on my iPhone app but not via regular Internet connections). You can see those sites, if you're willing to circunvent the law (and I was, because screw that, but with just one day it wasn't worth figuring out how). You can more or less say what you like in Shanghai, but you can't necessarily say it to a public audience and you certainly can't publish it consequence-free.

In Taipei I might be pissed at the current state of things, but at least I can say so. I can even protest. I can go online unfettered. Taipei wins.


Another tough one. Shanghai's got more Chinese-style stuff that foreigners like, and more options. Both cities have a varied and fascinating design scene. There are more choices in clothing for foreigners of different sizes in Shanghai, and more stores not available in Taiwan (Sephora, The Gap - not that I would go to The Gap). But everything is more expensive, and those super nice teapots and silk scarves can be found in Taipei if you hunt...and for less. Also, Taipei has night markets, but Shanghai has more "stuff from around China". While there's more variety and more to appeal to tourists in Shanghai, you can afford more in Taipei and still get some pretty cool, locally-made stuff. I think I'll give this one a tie.

One thing both cities have in common - people with tiny dogs:


In conclusion:

Shanghai gets points for nightlife, money, shopping and architecture. That's 4.
Taipei gets points for food, people, nightlife, shopping, transportation, freedom and pollution. That's 7, but I'm going to take away one point because wage stagnation and underemployment in Taiwan is so damn bad that it deserves to lose a point, because f*** you, government for not doing anything. Like, not even trying. Like, trying to keep it that way. So that's 6.

In sum: Shanghai's got a lot going for it, but I'll stick with Taipei. It wins 6-4. I do love it here. So friendly. So much cleaner. So much easier to get around.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gems of Brick

As ugly as many expats find Taipei, I really don't find it such (although there are plenty of horrifically ugly buildings, I'll grant you that). 

I haven't had much time or energy to post these past few weeks, but I have managed to amass several photos over the past few months highlighting some of the best of Taipei's old architecture - which is thankfully starting to be restored rather than culled. 

I do believe it's worth it to occasionally post a few of these photos, as my tiny, eensy-weensy contribution to an online archive of Taipei's considerable architectural gems - and to remind people that these gems even exist.

So, I'm not going to bother with captions - just enjoy. Most of these photos were taken somewhere in the vicinity of Yanping N. Road, Anxi St., Liangzhou Rd., Dihua Street, Minquan W. Road or some intersection thereof.