Showing posts with label zhubei. Show all posts
Showing posts with label zhubei. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hukou Old Street: A Photo Essay

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To get my mind off of the tragedy that is the Taipei MRT stabbing, and the less-surprising-yet-still-saddening Santa Barbara shooting (hey, let's make it legal for misogynist assholes to legally buy guns! Nothing could possibly go wrong there!), I decided to post some photos from a recent day trip to Hukou Old Street.

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The good things about Hukou Old Street: the train station for it is on the local line (not far from Hsinchu) from Taipei, meaning it's easy to get to the town. It is not quite as 'discovered' yet, with far more people inviting you into their traditional homes-cum-shops to peruse antiques than stores selling soap, camphor balm, brown sugar cake and plastic children's toys (they still have those things, but they are far smaller in number). The street never gets fully crowded even on a kinda-sunny Sunday. The buildings and their decorations are remarkably well-preserved. The area has a lot of down-at-heel local color and friendly folks.

The annoying things about Hukou Old Street: first, it's not that close to anything else. Second, while it's easy to take a taxi there from Hukou train station, it is not within easy walking distance and the bus between the two comes rarely. There are not taxis lining up to take you back to the train station or wherever. If you don't have your own transportation, I suggest getting the phone number of whichever taxi took you so you aren't calling taxi companies from a Hi Life when you're ready to go back, hoping one will have a car they can send your way. Because, uhh, I wouldn't know anything about that, no sir.

This is one drawback of living in Taiwan: it's a developed country and as such has an urban metro system, in Taipei and (slowly but surely) in Kaohsiung, worthy of the first world. And yet, much of Taiwan remains rural: it's not "poor" enough that there needs to be public transportation for a populace that can't afford cars, but not "rich" enough that it has the excellent public transit infrastructure of, say, Japan.

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But once there, the old street and surrounding town is a great way to spend some time - I recommend, to the best of your ability, tacking it onto something else - not sure what, as it's not near anything, but something. Including time spent eating you could spend a morning or an afternoon here, but not a whole day.

Which may be why it's not packed to the gills with tourist junk and the tourists who buy it like other old streets, so perhaps that's a blessing in disguise.

(Don't get me wrong, I like some of the tourist junk. I use the camphor balm and love brown sugar cake, it's just...I've seen it all. I'm happy to see that Dihua Street is going more traditional+upscale galleries and Hukou is maintaining its traditional flavor).

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At one end of the street there's a church - worth a quick look. At the other, a temple (beyond the temple there are some rural farmhousey-type areas you could walk around in, although beware unfriendly local dogs).

One woman invited us to enjoy some tea in the loft/top floor of her house - the first floor was full of antiques - most for sale. The seating area and tea set:

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Not bad, eh?

She doesn't invite everyone up, so don't push her...but you may be pleasantly surprised!

Another friendly old fellow with a clip-on mic and megaphone invited everyone in to see his collection of...things, which seems to have taken a Hoarders level of dedication to amass. For example, this thing is not creepy at all:

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This guy had a huge obsession with the KMT, wearing a fake KMT politician vest (he was not a politician) and collecting various Party bric-a-brac which was interspersed with photos of him shaking hands with KMT dignitaries, Hello Kitty piggy banks, Three Wise Men on camels, Ronald McDonald figurines and horrifying light-up faces in faux tree trunks. Also, clowns.

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All in all, it was pretty enjoyable, even if we really stretched out our mealtimes to make the trip all the way out to Hukou worth it.

If you're into old streets and Japanese-era architecture - and I am - and you're willing to go out of the way for a bit more authenticity, Hukou's a good choice.

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I mean, it doesn't get more authentic than that, does it?

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Loved the decorations on the traditional buildings.

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Another nice family invited us to the back of the house to see their antique brass bed.

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The temple is a pretty basic temple, nothing you can't see elsewhere, but it has a nice atmosphere...very peaceful, no scaffolding or corrugated tin roofs. And a few nice surprises like this little elephant hiding in the ceiling beams:

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And this gorgeous black-and-white tiger painting:

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There are a few restaurants, the most famous of which is in the old theater (the food is pretty good - not life-changing, but good enough), and plenty of snacks. We also got ginger tofu pudding (薑汁豆花) - honestly, not as good as what you can get in Sanxia at the much busier Old Street.

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But, of course, a visit to an Old Street is incomplete without a piece of plastic junk. I thought this happy green poop-shaped container holding Smartee-like poop candies was a good choice. He sits on my desk now.

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From there, we weren't hungry enough to head out to Miaoli for a good Hakka dinner. It wasn't exactly convenient to get to Hsinchu or Zhubei, although we considered stopping in Zhubei for Titty Tea's tasty brownies and good beer before heading back to Taipei from there (I know a place in Hsinchu city that does shabu shabu with congee broth, but we weren't hungry enough to eat that soon and I didn't have their information readily available). In the end we just went back to Taipei (after *cough* waiting at a Hi Life for a taxi to finally come get us) and had dinner there - we got back in plenty of time.

Just to show you how friendly and open people can be in Taiwan, I mentioned the taxi kerfuffle to some Hsinchu Science Park students and two of them were all "you should have called me! I would have given you guys a ride, no problem!" (Hukou is about a 20-minute highway trip from Zhubei). Awww.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Watching Zhubei

Sheraton Zhubei

In this somewhat meaningless post, I shall admit something:

I am weirdly fascinated with Zhubei (竹北), the small but increasingly shiny city in Xinzhu (新竹) county.

I'm not sure if it's because I know so many people who live there - a lot of my students, that is - or because it's just interesting to see a city go through a noticeable physical transformation over the course of just a few years, or because I have to drive through it so often, or what. I don't know, it's just a place that has caught my attention.

You might know it as the city where the Xinzhu (or Hsinchu, but I like Pinyin) HSR station is located. I know it as the city I have to pass through at least once a week, often more, on my way to the Hsinchu Science Park or, more rarely, Hukou Industrial Park. Occasionally, I teach seminars in Zhubei itself and at one point was hanging out there, at loose ends, for the better part of a day because I had a morning seminar in a building near the Sheraton, a set of late afternoon classes at the Science Park and nothing to do in between.

In the years I've done this job and commuted fairly regularly to Hsinchu, Taiwan's tech industry powerhouse, I've seen Zhubei go from being a dull, slightly weedy, city-in-between that boasted the HSR station, a few office buildings, a cluster of old traditional farmhouses and the Sheraton, and that's about it, to being a city that one might actually want to live in (as opposed to "choose to live in", which is what a lot of people in the science park do - it's not so much that they want to live there as they choose to live there, because it's convenient enough and got enough transportation links, and raising a family there wouldn't be quite as boring as being single there).

Every few months I'll cruise through in yet another taxi - some of the drivers actually know me at this point, which is impressive considering how many taxis line up regularly at the HSR station - and see another weedy lot gone, another building going up, another at completion that had been a weedy lot just a few years back.

Zhubei used to have a few of those weird-looking apartment building showcase buildings: I couldn't find a photo of one online, but anyone who lives in urban or semi-urban Taiwan knows what I'm talking about: weird one-story buildings with asymmetrical construction, funky roofs, odd lighting elements, ultramodern finishes and lines, occasionally weird globular or angular elements, that you look at and wonder "what's that for?" - too small to be a place to live, too small to be a wedding venue, too big for most stores (and too fancy to be one of the larger stores). Before I figured out what they were I thought Zhubei just had an overabundance of semi-talented, half-baked architects who kept designing weird buildings. Turns out they're places you can go to look at showcase apartments you can buy in the building that will eventually go up on that site. Or so I'm told.

Right now Zhubei seems to have more of them than they have cockroaches. This fascinates me - Taipei is built up enough that we don't get many of them, and when I ride through Zhubei I can't help but compare them.

I can't write this post without mentioning Titty Tea - when I first started working in the science park I'd pass this place in a taxi and for the longest time I thought it was run by locals who had no idea what the name meant. Once I rented a car with friends, and we were headed through on the way to the Pasta'ai festival, and I got my friend to stop so I could take a photo. Only later, when I had some free time in Zhubei and I actually went there, did I realize it was either foreigner-run or foreigner-staffed, and the name was chosen entirely on purpose. Also, wifi, good brownies, decent food and Belgian beer. You should check it out. If I lived in Zhubei I'd probably hang out here a lot...partly because they've got some good stuff, and partly because there doesn't seem to be anything else to do in Zhubei except possibly get a drink at the Sheraton bar (I assume there's a bar, since the hotel clearly exists for science and technology business types in town to visit TSMC or something, rather like the Holiday Inn Shenkeng exists for Chinese tourists whose tour packages have them staying out of town) or check out those old houses.

I'm also interested to see Zhubei continue to grow from weedy lots and a few weird buildings to a place crawling with science park types, and the associated high-end living spaces that go along with having a relatively well-paid professional population. What I haven't seen yet, and am waiting for, are obvious the next wave for Zhubei: restaurants, cafes, a few restaurant-bars, shops. There are a few, but certainly not enough to make it a terribly interesting place to live. Most people I know who live there - and working in the science park as much as I do, I know quite a few people who do live there - spend their weekends driving somewhere else: Hsinchu city (apparently there's this re-opened huge department store called Big City down there), Taipei, some rural area conducive to day trips or wherever their parents live.

As of now, the Zhubei living experience can be summed up by one of my students:

Him: "Last weekend we decided to find a good place to eat in Zhubei. We didn't want to go all the way to Hsinchu or Taipei."

Other student: "Did you find one?"

Him: "No."

Me: "So what did you do?"

Him: "Well, on Saturday night we decided that Wang Steak was too crowded, so we went to a Japanese seafood restaurant. It was terrible. We wanted to try again on Sunday so we found another place, but it was also not very good."

Other student: "Is Wang Steak the only good place to eat in Zhubei?"

Him: "I think so, yes."

He might not be completely correct, but he's got a point: there are a lot of people with a fair amount of money kicking around Zhubei, and more than a few are either single and well-paid, DINKS, or dual-income families with kids that they can afford to spoil a little bit, and not a lot of them to do in the city where they live. More has got to be coming to cater to these people, because that's how economics works.

And I'll be excited to see it happen. I don't think I'll ever live in Zhubei - most of my work is still in Taipei, I get paid well to go down there so there's no need to relocate, and I still enjoy all that Taipei has to offer. I wouldn't want to live without lots of cool coffeehouses to choose from, the hidden old buildings and streets in the western part of the city, public transportation, various amenities that I don't always take advantage of but enjoy having around (like City Super's cheese selection), museums (which I do visit regularly enough to make this an important thing) and accessibility of hikes and the coast by bus.