Instablurb: Taiwan’s Night Markets

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Rueifeng Night Market, Kaohsiung

Taiwan is often ignored by the dominant forces in travel publishing. It rarely makes the cut on any of the “Top Ten Tropical Getaways” lists that litter the interwebs, and the under abundance of drug induced beach parties largely keep it off the backpacker circuit, but the few glitzy websites that do give Isla Formosa some play almost never forget to include Taiwan’s night markets as must see attractions, and rightly so.

Similar to strip malls in suburban America (only less tacky) and Trattorias in Italy (only more crowded), you’re never too far from a night market in Taiwan. Ask any Taiwanese where their favorite night market is and they’ll probably give you two; mention your favorite night market and they’ll respond with one that’s better. The open air conglomerations of food stalls, clothing shops, carnival games and craft stands are best taken in with all senses–ideal places to smash on local food, try your hand at mahjong bingo, people-watch to your heart’s content and browse for everything from panty hose to house pets.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

For expats in Taiwan it’s sometimes easy to ignore the lure of night markets and it might take an argument over just which one is the best before you rediscover why making weekly visits to your neighborhood night market is a part of life for those who call Taiwan home. Fail to check out a few night markets as a visitor and you’ll indeed be missing out on an interesting chunk of Taiwanese culture.

Somewhat driven by a recent visit to the Labor Park Night Market ( 老公夜市) near my apartment in Kaohsiung, I snapped a few photos of night market scenes worth sharing and dug through my iPhone for old ones as well.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Probably the most highlighted aspect of Taiwan’s night markets is the food. The general rule when dining out in night markets ought to be to keep an eye out for stalls that have their food reviews on display or have a line of patrons. These tend to be long-standing tenants with reputations for serving up culinary crack. Of course this doesn’t mean you should pass up stalls without queues and newspaper clippings, but with so much grub competing for your attention, it’s nice to have some local guidance.

Rueifong Night Market. Kaohsiung City.

Rueifeng Night Market. Kaohsiung City.

Eating your way through a night market will also mean coming across some pretty weird shit. Chicken feet, pig blood cake and duck tongues are mainstays and I promise you’ll smell the stinky tofu long before you actually see it. Be as adventurous as you want, but I stop short of animal rectums (no chicken ass, please) and most insects (shoutout to Andrew Zimmern).

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Rueifeng Night Market, Kaohsiung

When I ask my students what they enjoy most about night markets the majority of them mention the games: toss a ring, shoot a bottle, pop a balloon; it’s all there–plenty to choose from if you’re looking for a place to win a stuffed Hello Kitty for your girlfriend or to park the kids for a couple of hours while you try on sunglasses and fish for live shrimp.  I often chuckle when seeing kids go buck wild at a game stall while mom and dad sit nearby scrolling through Facebook, passing money to the game operator every few minutes to keep the party going.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Even more interesting, there’s usually a gaming section devoted to mahjong bingo where for NT$15-$20 a game, you can flip over fifteen mahjong tiles with the hope of landing a straight line on the gaming board. You’d think gambling was involved considering how many people hunker down in front of the tiles, but prizes rarely exceed the normal collection of children’s toys and stuffed animals.

I’ve noticed that while there are common threads that run through almost all night markets, each one still has its own unique vibe. Some are massive and cater to tourists looking to snatch up a few Chinese made souvenirs and pose for photos while holding stinky tofu. Others are more chill and locally driven–narrow lanes where people stop to grab their favorite dumplings or grilled squid on their way home from school or work. Some night markets function better as social hubs: landmarks to meet at with friends and browse but never buy; places where broke teenagers can take their dates.

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Labor Park Night Market, Kaohsiung

Some of my favorite night markets are mainly clothing markets selling T-shirts with incorrect English printed on them and wide arrays of clubbing garb, priced to sell and in line with the latest fashion from Korea, Japan and the U.S. Two years ago on my birthday I bought a cap at the New Shinkuchan Night Market in Kaohsiung loaded with so much bling that I felt like a Saudi prince as soon as it touched my skull. There’s no way you’d find that type of swag in SOGO or any other department store chain in Taiwan.

Still, there are some night markets that are unapologetic in their randomness, completely undefinable and seemingly unmatched in their versatility. Meccas of commerce that have no problem catering to those who’d like to pick up a new cell phone case, have a pair of jeans tailored, get a manicure and snack on strawberry glazed penis cakes all at the same place.

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Fengjia Night Market, Taichung

Find Dreadlock Travels on Instagram: @jaywoodson

Author’s note: If you’re in Kaohsiung, Taiwanvore has done a fine job mapping out a lot of the night markets in the city. Peep his Photo walk through the Labor Park Night Market post as well.

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S.K.S. Attempts to Debunk Misconceptions of Blacks in Taiwan

Taiwan video production group Stop Kidding Studio recently released a video entitled 台灣人對黑人的四大誤解:Things Taiwanese Don’t Know About Black People. In the video, African-American Tiffany tries to explain and debunk some of the common misconceptions Taiwanese have of blacks in Taiwan.

The video was posted to the Facebook group for Teachers Against Discrimination In Taiwan (TADIT). The title caught my attention because it’s something I’ve written and talked about at length since I first moved to Taiwan two years ago when, shortly after arriving in Kaohsiung, I was told–flat out–that finding a teaching gig would be difficult because my skin color didn’t fit the bill. Sadly, Taiwan has some catching up to do in the area of cultural diversity. It’s an issue that baffles me still, but given Stop Kidding Studio’s track record of creating provocative videos aimed at traversing the cultural rifts between Taiwanese and foreigners, I was optimistic about how they would handle the glossed over topic of Taiwanese untruths about black foreigners.

Photo: Facebook/StopKiddingStudio

Photo: Facebook/StopKiddingStudio

Unfortunately, the video falls short of actually addressing some of the nuances of being black in a country where everyone loves Obama and Lebron, but where many can’t fathom the idea of a black native English speaker.

It begins with the common misconception that all blacks in Taiwan are from countries in Africa–a promising start as far as I see it. Indeed blacks hail from many parts of the world and represent a wide array of cultures, but perhaps further explanation is needed about what that means.

It would be helpful, for example, to mention that because “black” as a racial construct has very little (if anything) to do with nationality, there’s no set of cultural or behavioral traits that can appropriately define “being black.” What’s true for a black American is not necessarily true for someone who’s black from the U.K. or Belize or Kenya. It shouldn’t be surprising that we have different traditions, eat different foods, adorn ourselves in different fashions. Taiwan’s incredulous attitudes regarding blacks being from countries other than those in Africa is undeniably absurd, but failure to mention how we are as culturally diverse as the places we come from can be just as damaging as any misconception the video aims to correct. It’s nice that we’re told blacks are a global race, but how about a disclaimer that the views expressed in the video are from the perspective of a black American?

I applaud Tiffany for bringing up the belief that blacks only favor Hip-Hop music and nothing else, but again more is needed beyond listing off the music we’ve had a hand in creating or making popular. As annoying as it can be, it’s not surprising that people in Taiwan feel Hip-Hop is the only music blacks associate themselves with (people think the same thing in countries all over the world). Hip-Hop culture has had a significant influence on the global black community and it’s cultural texts are better traveled than most blacks from the country where Hip-Hop arguably was born. In Taiwan this has given birth to false assumptions about how blacks talk and carry themselves.

It’s probably the reason why, when in public with my white girlfriend, many Taiwanese will greet her with “Hello, how are you?”, while I get “Yo wassup, man!” or “Wassup mu’fucka!” Quite often I respond with a wave and a disappointing shake of the head.

True, it’s not as extreme as crotch grabbing and dropping the N-word, but when the swagger and bravado of Hip-Hop music becomes the outline upon which Taiwanese interactions with blacks are predicated, it takes more than a simple mentioning of our musical taste being eclectic beyond Jay-Z and Lil Wayne to set things right. Music matters but it doesn’t write the script for an entire race.

Still, probably the biggest issue I found with the video’s assessment of things Taiwanese don’t know about black people is the handling of black food tastes. I relate to the idea of “soul food,” but I come from an African American household where recipes for greens, yams, fried chicken, cornbread and the like have been swapped and handed down for several generations. I know this food. I love this food. I highly doubt this is the same food found in black households across Latin America or in the Caribbean or anywhere else that’s not the United States of America. Variations certainly exist (many American soul food dishes have their roots in Africa and the West Indies), but black cuisine is far more than what can be seen in the 1997 film Soul Food (a good movie that explains soul food about as much as Boys n the Hood explains malt liquor). During this segment in particular it would’ve been nice to hear from blacks from countries other than the U.S. to provide a better cross-section of black food opinions. How does traditional black food in the U.S. differ from that in South Africa? Soul Food doesn’t actually address this question or anything similar, so sending a bunch of curious Taiwanese netizens to black Hollywood for answers about what us black folks tend to eat probably isn’t the most culturally aware strategy.

For all it faults, the video does make a good point about the constant touching of black hair and questions about how it’s washed. It happens to me so often that I’ve almost ceased waiting for the question to be asked upon meeting Taiwanese for the first time. There’s usually a long pause right after “nice to meet you” in which my hair is curiously examined. This is usually my cue to say “yes, my hair is real, I wash it just like you’d expect and okay, you can touch it.” I can handle this with grace, but like Tiffany, I find it rude that someone would take it upon themselves to fondle my hair without my permission. No complaints from me on this front.

I appreciate Stop Kidding Studio’s efforts to put down the misconceptions many Taiwanese hold about black people, but because of the lack of opportunities for Taiwanese to interact with actual black people (rap videos, internet news reports and movies don’t count), greater care needs to be given in explaining the varied cultural facets of blacks from around the world.

A single voice speaking for an entire village is bound to piss off few neighbors.

Authors Note: Check out S.K.S.’s 台灣人有種族歧視??Taiwanese Are Racists? for related content.

K-Town Paparazzi

Photo by Funkypancake CCL 2.0

Photo by Funkypancake CCL 2.0

One of the schools that I work at is next door to a hair salon.  A long while back a co-worker tells me that a stylist at the hair salon saw me in a different part of the city. I tell my co-worker I’m not exactly hard to miss in Kaohsiung and stand there for a moment thinking there’s more to the story. There isn’t; someone saw me somewhere, that person thought my co-worker should know and my co-worker thought I should know.

The whole exchange didn’t make much sense until last week when, after finishing my classes, one of the T.A.s asks me if I have time to stop by the hair salon before I go home for the night.

“They want take picture of your hair.”

I head over and a stylist sits me down in her chair and confusingly eyeballs the small black ropes hanging from my scalp.

She speaks very little English but starts asking me how it’s done.

I grab a tuft of my hair and think of how I might explain dreadlocks in Chinese, but with my limited vocabulary the best I would be able to convey is “head chopsticks,” and I’d probably still screw up the requisite tones. Instead I scribble “dreadlocks” on a piece of paper and tell her to Google it.

Using her cellphone, she begins taking pictures of my hair from every angle imaginable and asks (through the use of Chinese, broken English and hand gestures) what products I use. Not knowing how to convey “organic lock and twist gel” I again consider using my Chinese skills to say something that might vaguely translate to “head glue” before sheepishly pointing to a bottle of shampoo on a nearby shelf.

I get that she probably wants to offer dreadlocks to her clients some day, but I’ve just finished teaching. I’m not really in the mood to explain how it’s done nor why it will take a helluva lot more effort to create the same hairstyle for someone with thinner hair than mine.

I’m just about to leave when she tells me that it was actually her friend who saw me before. The hair stylist knew it was me because of the Facebook message her friend sent with my photo attached. She swipes around on her phone and shows me a grainy zoomed-in photo (a la TMZ) from nearly a year ago of myself and several friends sitting outside a 7-11 drinking beers. I’m not even remotely aware that I’m being photographed.

“Is it strange?” As she asks the question I realize I’m not doing a good job of hiding the stupefied look on my face.

A complete stranger shows you a photo of yourself that looks like it was taken by a stalker? Fuck yes, it’s strange.

I think about it on the way home and it starts to bother me. Isn’t it rude that someone would take an unsuspecting photo of me then share it with someone else as if to say “look what I found?” Wouldn’t it be better to have at least asked my permission first (something that happens frequently) instead of acting like a creepy paparazzo lurking in the shadows of 7-11? Am I being too sensitive?

I’ve since thought that maybe I’m not being fair. The incident was weird and mildly intrusive, but had I not been shown the photo, I would’ve gone about my business ignorant to the fact and thus un-nuanced by it. Effectively, there would be no reason for this blog post.

Thinking about it within the context of unabashed Taiwanese photo glut, one could assume this is business as usual, as many Taiwanese rarely miss an opportunity to whip out their cellphones and click away, regardless of how mundane the subject.

A latte during breakfast–click.
A dog wearing a miniature jacket–click.
Each and every meal consumed at a restaurant–click, click, click.

While I personally question the need to photograph any of the above examples, it doesn’t surprise me when I see others do it. Tis the norm in the R.O.C.

Why then, is it bothersome that someone covertly took a photo of me because of my (scarcely found in Taiwan) appearance? Couldn’t there be a western equivalence of this given the proliferation of a click-share-discuss culture ushered in by Facebook, Instagram, Hipstamatic, Picstich and the like?

A quick scroll through my Instagram posts reveals that I have indeed taken photos of at least five people without their knowledge or consent, but the purpose of these photos is hardly based on a person’s appearance so much as a humorous situation (a toddler riding in a remote controlled miniature sized Audi and a man sleeping next to his scooter) or a t-shirt with a cheeky message printed on it (“COMME des FUCKDOWN”).  Would these be considered on par with my 7-11 portrait?

I’m having a hard time figuring out if this is simply a cultural difference in photo etiquette or if I truly have reason to find fault in what was likely meant as a harmless gesture of curiosity.

Drop a comment below and let me know what you think.