Your footsteps turn into splashes; the small puddles, unavoidable, as you’re wandering the streets of Taipei, way after dusk, shortly after an evening drizzle. It seems odd. For a city its size, the streets are rather quiet. You are one of the few passers-by, silently strolling, as the occasional motorcycle leaving behind trails of smoke, makes its way between the cars briefly stopped at the lights.
With a few more steps, you start noticing a familiar scent diffusing out of a hidden alley, the stinky tofu fragrance inviting, or perhaps, repelling you with its strong presence. You decide to be adventurous – after all, Taipei’s beauty is found in small pockets, and after nightfall, life here happens only where you know of it. The entrance of the alley is congested by a few plastic tables and chairs piled up next to a series of flowerpots of different colours and shapes. You jump them, hoping that you are not somehow invading someone’s private property, and continue on the faintly lit alleyway, each step bringing you closer to an apparent calm, yet buzzing acoustics.
As you step out, it all surrounds you – the people, the vendors, the dim lights, the aromas. Who would have known; just a short walk through a random alleyway and a dozen flowerpots later, and you end up in one of Taipei’s characteristic after-hours meeting spots: the infamous night market.
Night markets have recently become an international symbol for travelers. In a recent study by the Tourism Bureau, the most visited spot while globetrotting through Taiwan is not Taipei 101, nor the Palace Museum, but – you guessed it – night markets, at an astonishing 63%! This means that more than half of people stepping foot in Taiwan will most likely end up either indulging in, or running away from, stinky tofu at some point throughout their trip.
As a cornerstone of Taiwanese culture, these meeting spots, hidden among the conspicuous skyscrapers, provide an informal avenue for people to engage in late night social activities. They not only have recreational purposes, but also embody a set of traditions that paint an image of Taiwan’s past and present, coupled with tensions surrounding issues of modernity and progress.
The birthplace of night markets can be traced back to ‘floating’ vendors. As it was rather difficult for these poor merchants to find a suitable place to sell their goods, mainly due to the heavy traffic and congestions in urban centers, they would gather in a specific location and attract customers by yelling out their product offering. Most commonly, vendors would congregate around temples or at street corners, at an exact time. During the 1950s-60s, the influx of migrant workers created a new customer base. Due to a high demand for cheap meals, vendors changed their cooking techniques and used stronger flavours and cheaper ingredients to satisfy a growing market for inexpensive, quick meals.
As Taiwan was transforming into a more manufacturing-based society, by the 1970s-80s, efforts have been put in place to integrate night markets into the fiscal economy. This was mainly due to criticism that street merchants were competing unfairly with the more established neighborhood stores who were required to pay taxes. During this period of regulation, public perception of night markets changed to one of scrutiny, criticizing vendors as ‘anti-modern and backwards.’ This resulted in increased policing and efforts to relocate these sites. It also, however, created more ‘fixed’ establishments, such as the popular Raohe Street Market.
Raohe Street business district was purposefully transformed into today’s night market, not only as a desire for more regulation, but also as a new push to integrate Taiwanese folk culture into these sites. As a result, handicrafts and performances like lion dances were added. Many would argue these practices are inauthentic, as more of the older traditions, such as fortune-telling, or the sale of traditional Chinese medicine or religious items have been lost, and consequently, replaced with activity marketed for tourist consumption.
Today’s night market is a contested site. It acts both as a place of relaxation and community, yet at the same time, it still faces issues of identity, meaning and acceptance. There are many locals that believe night markets stand in the way of Taiwan being seen as a truly modern place. In the shadows of the glass skyscrapers, traditions clash with ideals and competing values and opinions are only but a marker of a changing generation.
Regardless of what the future of night markets may be, they will always hold an important place in Taiwan’s culture and history. Night markets changed with the times: the addition of the neon signs, their hidden spots scattered among the modern towers, the enclaves of family-owned businesses; each addition and development is a symbol of its longevity. As you’re walking through the night market, take a moment and remember that you might just be walking through decades of changes, each informed by the other, each contesting the other.
What is your opinion? Do you feel current night markets are only a mean for tourism consumption? Or are they, as seen today, a representation of a traditional Taiwan? Most importantly, do you feel night markets can co-exist with a modern Taiwan?
Tsai, Chiung-Tzu Lucetta | Culinary Tourism And Night Markets in Taiwan
Yu, Shuenn-Der | Taiwan’s Night Market Culture