Taiwan: Festivals, Fireworks and Fantastic Food
By Paul Shoul
Walking up and down the main drag in the LioHe night market in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, I finally accepted the fact that I was lost. The market had swallowed me whole.
Captivating me with its exotic collage of amazing food stands, the smell of grilling fish, crabs and meat, the laughter and calls of the hawkers, the color and variety of traditional goods, gleaming watches, lighters and electronic toys so advanced and numerous that even Santa would be jealous.
After sitting down to a snack of the best hot and sour soup and handmade dumplings my friends and I, or anyone, would ever have, we had made a deal: we would split up, stay on the main street and meet in a half an hour. The river of smiling people carried me wide-eyed along in its flow. Before I realized it, I was far too gone to ever find them again.
Two hours later I started to try to get back to our hotel, hoping they would be there waiting.
All day I had been amazed by the feeling of calm and safety that I had in this country. The people have a remarkable openness about them. They are friendly from the get-go and assume that you are a good person until you prove otherwise, rather than taking the opposite approach as some people do in other countries.
But now, late at night, with ten thousand bucks of camera equipment hanging off of me, alone in a crowd, I began to wonder. I tried to find someone who could speak English.
With pantomime, and facial expressions, you can show hunger or happiness, ask where a bathroom is, show solidarity with a handshake or order food just by pointing. But if you are trying to express something abstract or something that is not within view, like the name of the Ambassador Hotel where I was staying, for example, you just cannot fake it.
I asked everyone I could see. No luck. Pushing my way out of the market into the street, I started waving down cab drivers. One after another, they held up a business card, implying that I should give them the card in Chinese from my hotel that I stupidly forgot.
"You Come to Right Place"
Suddenly, from behind, I felt an arm on my shoulder. Three men had gathered around me and were gesturing, pulling me along to come with them. They smiled; they seemed so nice. Were they?
They led me down a long dark street with the faint glow of a single neon light at the end. One of them yelled out. A man rushed out of a doorway with a look of determination on his face. He ran up to me, grabbed my shoulders and said... "Hello."
Shaking my hand until I feared it would detach from my arm, my worry evaporated. He said, “You come to right place.” He only spoke a little English, but it was enough to figure out where I wanted to go. I got into a cab he had called, and thanked them for their help, but he was thanking me more.
As I drove away I could see his friends slapping him on the back, and his face was glowing with pride. You see, the Taiwanese take pride in helping; they gain stature by doing good deeds. Maybe, because it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, second only to Bangladesh, they have to get along with each other. Or maybe they simply love Americans, because we protect them from the Chinese whose giant shadow looms over their tiny island.
Whatever the cause, the Taiwanese just may be the friendliest people on the planet. Aside from all that Taiwan has to offer the traveler -- its history, lively cities, mountains, beautiful coastline, islands, incredible food and ancient culture -- the people are its greatest asset and they are well worth the trip.
A Bustling Nation in Perpetual Motion
Taiwan packs its 22 million people into just 13,892 square miles. Located just off the southeast coast of mainland China, two thirds of the land is mountainous and most of its people live in the major flat land and coastal cities.
It is a bustling nation in perpetual motion, a thriving economy trying to balance its ancient history and traditions with its prominence as a major capitalist force. Motor scooters zoom everywhere. Giant fashion models on billboards beckon the young as withered old ladies sell incense below them. Everyone has cell phones, which ring as they pray at ancient temples surrounded by electronic stores and highrises. The whole country is engaged in a ballet of cultural multitasking.
I was there to attend the 2006 Year of the Dog Lantern Festivals in the cities of Kaohsiung, Tainan and Taipei. Considering that the flight from New York takes 18 hours, my four days there was far too short a time. I wanted to stay longer, maybe even move there to live, and definitely wanted to see more of the islands and natural wonders. But I love cities, especially when they love me back.
Kaohsiung is the country's largest port and a petrochemical and industrial center. It also has beaches close to downtown and there are plans to expand it as a tourist destination. A high-speed train is in the works from Taipei.
Before heading out to the night market we took a short tour of the portside park and then set up to watch the spectacular fireworks bursting over the city's “Love River.” Then we strolled along with the crowds through a fantasyland of life-sized glowing papier maché models.
That evening we spent at the Ambassador Hotel. Like all of the hotels we stayed at, the Ambassador has huge breakfast and dinner buffets that cater to Chinese, Japanese, and American palates. This one set a standard that would be hard to beat. We few Americans, watched as the Chinese ate stir-fried Jellyfish for breakfast, as they watched the Japanese devour mounds of raw tuna and they both stared in amazement at our crude devotion to all things fatty that come from a pig. It was a glorious feasting that threatened to fill me up for the rest of the trip
The next morning, after waking early and spending a very peaceful time sitting by the river as people strolled by, we headed out to drive to Tainan. The highways are modern, crowded and fast-moving. In keeping with the people’s demeanor, the drivers are very polite; they just tap on the horn to make another aware of their presence. Boston cabbies would take them down like bowling pins.
Within the populated areas of Taiwan, there is very little open space, and what little there is is all used for something. Endless housing complexes fill the gaps in between the factories. In between them were countless canals of shrimp and fish farms separated by incredibly productive vegetable farms.
Tainan is the oldest city and the ancient capital of Taiwan. It is a must-see, and was the host of the grand Lantern Festival held at the city's Anping Harbor Park. The scale of the festival was enormous. Dance troupes from all over Taiwan and a renowned street dance troupe from Japan performed.
There is nothing like the choreography of fifty to one hundred dancers, martial artists, drummers and acrobats, all moving in unison. It is awesome.
Aside from the thousands of lanterns lighting the park, the visual focal point of the celebration was a giant twenty-ton, sixty-foot stainless steel dog lantern that was impressive enough standing still, but scared the hell out of me when, as I was standing under it, it suddenly lit up in brilliant color, and started rotating as fire works and lasers exploded skyward from its base.
The festival is not contained solely within the park. It is a citywide event with little rituals happening in every neighborhood.
Visiting Temples and Dodging Rockets
Heading out from the amazing Tayih Landis Hotel where we were staying, we visited the National Center for Research and Preservation of Cultural Properties which is well worth a stop to learn some history of the city and its traditions. We also toured the Anping fort built by the Dutch in the 1620s on a hill that has a great view of the city.
But the high points of my time in Tainan were spent eating, visiting the temples and dodging rockets. At Chous Shrimp Rolls Restaurant we were treated to an amazing meal. This place is favored by the locals, and was packed. We tried the shrimp, fish ball and Tainan noodle soups, steamed prawns, deep fried oysters, red sticky rice, and a dish called “the coffins.” They are fried pieces of bread arranged in the shape of a coffin, filled with cream sauce and vegetables. The food was inspiring.
We also lucked out and happened to be at the Tienhou (Empress of Heaven) Temple when a group from a neighboring town came to pay homage. The beautiful thing about the temples in Taiwan is that, aside from their beauty, grandeur and age, people actively use them. As long as you are respectful, they are happy to have you there when they are engaged in prayer.
The ritual we witnessed was a procession of men dressed as twelve-foot gods who were followed by a sword-wielding dance done on piles of exploding fire works as the dancers drew blood from themselves with their weapons.
Entering the temple, they made offerings to Matsu - the goddess of the sea. One woman in the crowd went into an ecstatic trance and fell to the floor. She was then helped and healed with touch and incense. It was really quite amazing.
The Beehive Firecracker Festival
Finally, later that evening, I found myself avoiding being blown up by fire works at a little thing called the “Beehive Firecracker Festival”.
Before heading out to the Beehive, I was told, “we cannot be responsible for your safety. Good luck and we hope you survive,” at which point our guide Bruce from the tourism bureau held up a glass and toasted “to those of us who are about out to die.”
“You must wear a double layer of thick clothing and a motorcycle helmet,” he said.
“Whatever, Bruce,” I thought. “I’ve been through riots and war zones and you're laying it on a little thick. Let’s just go watch them blow stuff up. How bad could it be?”
Bruce was right. After an hour drive to the city of Yen-shui we arrived at 11:00 at night, and started rushing through the small streets. The smell of smoke was in the air. As we went further into the heart of the city I noticed that there were mounds of torn little pieces of red paper everywhere and thought, "These folks really need to clean up their act," until I realized that they were the remnants of thousands of firecrackers. (Later, I learned that they save them as a sign of luck).
"These Guys Are Nuts"
We started to hear explosions, many of them. Arriving at small square in the town, a crowd of people, all dressed in double thick clothing with motorcycle helmets on, (except for a few folks who were exceptionally brave or extremely drunk) watched as a group of men in the center started winging 20 foot lengths of exploding firecrackers the size of M-80s around their heads like lassos. They flew everywhere. Cries of joy and pain erupted as they bounced off people. As one hit me in the helmet I thought, “These guys are nuts. This is very cool.”
Then the Beehive made its entrance. It is a red wooden box the size of a small car. With loving care -- for this contraption that must have taken days to construct -- they prepared it for its ultimate purpose, which would only last a minute. Lifting up the sides of the box revealed what looked like a beehive. Layer after layer of bottle rockets, thousands of them, pointing straight out, from either side.
“No way!” I thought. The fuse was lit and a kind of rumbling started in the crowd as people bounced themselves and the carts holding small deities up and down in anticipation.
All hell broke lose as the rockets pelted the crowd. Wow! It may sound crazy, but there is a great feeling of solidarity, a kind of badge of courage and accomplishment, after the thing goes off. All I thought was, “Let's do that again!”
Some people come wearing fire suits, while others wear only shorts as test of their courage. Every year there are injuries. Someone is hurt or burned or blinded. Take the precautions seriously and you should be fine.
The annual event takes place on the fifteenth day of the lunar New Year and dates back more than a hundred years. It started as a way to scare off evil spirits that were causing a horrible plague in the town or to serve as a signal to attract the gods to help them. No one is sure. There is a museum in the town devoted to the Beehive. Definitely check it out, but be sure to put your helmet on.
Taipei is on all the time. There is no off switch; it never sleeps. Sometimes, very late at night, it slows to whispers, but it never stops and the only real quiet time to be found here lies behind thick walls or deep within you. If you give yourself over, become part of the noise, it is as unobtrusive as your own voice.
In the morning, people gather to exercise and do Tai Chi. During the day and night, many visit their temples to light incense and talk with the gods. The temples are, at once, both highly individual and group experiences, much like the city itself. It is the political, economic and cultural capital of Taiwan. Squeezed into a valley, surrounded by mountains, it is a thriving garden of neon, motor scooters and countless people. I loved it.
We were fortunate to stay at the Grand Hotel. Built in the 1950s in the old Chinese style of architecture, it is worth a visit just to see the lobby, and open piano bar restaurant. Held up by towering red columns, carpeted in red and adorned by beautiful woodcarvings and lanterns, it must encompass at least 20,000 square feet.
At the other extreme of time and culture, we took a ride up to the top of the world's tallest building, Taipei 101. Completed in 2004, it is 1,670 feet (509 meters) tall. When you take the elevator -- I don’t think you are allowed to or would be able to make it up the stairs -- the lights dim and you are given a quick history of the building.
It's all very Star Trek and the upper observation floor is definitely futuristic cool. A huge ball is suspended at the top in center of the building to compensate for movement and keep the whole thing stable. Glass windows offer an amazing view. I was not positive, but I swear I could see my house in Boston.
Later, we had lunch at the Dian shui Lou dumpling house. The chefs wrap the delightful little bundles of shrimp, pork or vegetables behind a glass kitchen wall so you can watch the magic. The bundles arrive at your table in bamboo steamers. Some of the meat dumplings have broth mixed in so that when they cook, they release it on the inside. They are delicate, clean and fabulous.
Busy Last Day
On our last day we jammed in as much as possible. First we took a tour of the National Palace Museum, which has one of the largest collections of Chinese art and objects in the world. If you have the time, set aside a few hours to take in its amazing exhibits.
Then we drove to Chiang Kai-Shek's home. It is worth a visit to see how he and his wife lived. Situated on mountain over the city, it is a beautiful spot from which to rule the country. He rose early; she slept in. She ate American food; he ate traditional. She had a pink bathroom; he had a blue one.
They make a big deal out of the bathrooms on the tour. I was not impressed. No matter how powerful a person is, at the end of the day, we all end up on the same throne.
Not too far from there we tried the Yang Ming Shan hot springs. There are more than a hundred hot springs in Taiwan; the use of them became popular during the Japanese occupation due to their devotion to bathing in scalding water.
They have nice private and public tub rooms and one hell of a good restaurant. Apparently the hot baths eat up a lot of calories as you soak in them. It is fortunate because you will want to eat as much as you can of their amazing food. Sea cucumber and abalone in a brown sauce, jumbo butterfly shrimp, seafood soup with clams, shrimp and baby oysters, and sea bass in lemon sauce were just part of the feast we devoured.
In Search of Stinky Tofu
That evening we headed for the Shi Lin night market, one of the largest in Taiwan. Again I got lost in the crowd, but this time I was prepared and just rode the people wave as far as it would take me.
These markets are the soul of Taiwan. I had heard about the famous “stinky tofu” and followed my nose to find some. It's true, it really stinks, and was not hard to locate. The lines at the small stand were very long.
They drop the fermented tofu into hot oil, fry it to a crisp and serve it in a plastic bag with kim chi or hot sauce. It tastes so good that you start to like the smell. That, along with the grilled duck tongues and squid were my favorites, but I had only scratched the surface of the delicacies to be found there.
The next morning before my flight home, I dashed over to Lungshan Temple. It is the oldest temple in Taipei and one of the country’s most popular religious and historical sites. The air is filled with the sweet smoke of incense and the sound of chanting and worship.
Although it's crowded, many individuals find peace in their private conversations with the more than one hundred deities that are worshiped. After all my rushing around, trying to see everything I could, I finally slowed down to the moment and just was. The temple brought me to tears. Not of sadness, but of recognition. I sat down, and closed my eyes. I’m not sure how I made my flight in time. I do not remember leaving. In a way… I never have.
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.