Taipei

Off the 'eaten track' in the Taiwanese capital.
Taipei
 
First published on 8 Dec 2011. Updated on 21 Apr 2014.

I first hear the sound as I wait for my chicken to finish deep frying. It’s a surprisingly guttural vibration that seems to warn against the unhealthy consequences of my impending greasy snack. In fact, it’s just the strumming of guitars – loud ones. But, looking around at the plethora of food stalls and street boutiques near Taipei’s bustling Shida night market, it isn’t obvious where they’re coming from. Heading around the corner, through a black door and down into a basement, however, it soon becomes apparent: they’re coming from Underworld…

Mention Taipei to anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of crossing the Formosa Strait and you will, without fail, be met with food-related cries of delight. ‘You need to try this little deep-fried number at Shilin night market,’ they’ll tell you. It’s one of those inevitabilities of life, like taxes, death or people mentioning taxes and death as inevitabilities of life.

To be fair, it is a tasty destination. On every corner of the Taiwanese capital – a compact metropolis balancing broad, scooter-infested boulevards and narrow, charming back alleys – you’re reminded of this. The smell of stinky doufu hits you even more potently than that of its Beijing cousin; the scent of Taiwan’s famous beef noodle soup is ever-present; and deep fat fryers occupy almost every intersection. With such a delicious sensory overload, it is sometimes easy to forget that Taipei isn’t just about food.

On this night at least, Underworld (45 Shida Road, Da’an district. +886 2 2369 0103), a dark, intimate, graffiti-covered music venue, is definitely not about food. It’s packed with indie revellers listening to heavy, ear-stinging punk. Loud, gritty and fun, it’s possibly the first time in my mind that Taiwan and food have not been inextricably connected. It raises the question: beyond the street bites, what other sides to this city are there?

If you’re after music, your first port of call should be the vibrant university district of Da’anding, home to a trio of live music venues: Underworld, The Wall and Witch House. I heard about The Wall (200, Section 4, Luosifu Road, Wenshan district. +886 2 2930 0162) purely through reputation. Founded in 2003, it has become Taipei’s best-known livehouse. Descend into the minimalist industrial space and you’re first confronted by a practice studio; then you encounter a tattoo parlour (with glass windows for your viewing pleasure); then a T-shirt boutique; and finally, a record shop and bar. At the centre lies a 500 person-capacity venue that plays host to Taiwanese and international bands from Wednesday to Sunday every week. It has become as much a creative hub as it is a music venue and it is your best bet if you’re looking to see some mid-sized indie bands.

At the quainter end of the spectrum is Witch House (7, Lane 56, Section 3, Hsin-Sheng South Road, Da’an district. +886 2 2362 5494), a little café-bar that hosts live acoustic music every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It’s intimate, cosy, attracts a university-age hipster crowd, and is the kind of place that describes itself as a ‘cultural café’.

Walking around Taipei, you don’t necessarily get a feel for Taiwan’s culturally mixed heritage. In the past, Taiwan has fallen under the rule of the Dutch and, more recently, the Japanese, but there is little evidence of this in its urban landscape – except perhaps for the modern-day proliferation of Uniqlos and sushi shops. There are, however, several high-profile heritage buildings and, in the past two decades, a handful of these complexes have been transformed into havens for the arts.

Huashan 1914 Creative Park (1, Section 1, Bade Road, Zhongzhen district. +886 2 2358 1914) is perhaps Taipei’s most impressive art zone. Formerly a rice wine factory during the Japanese occupation, the complex had fallen into disrepair before a local theatre company decided to hold impromptu, guerrilla performances in the space, leading to calls for it to be redeveloped. In 1997 it was, as it is now, a creative arts hub – like a mini, more theatrical version of Beijing’s 798 district. Expect to see a series of warehouses holding exhibitions, theatre productions and concerts, plus cafes, bars, boutiques and restaurants (including a pseudo-gothic-themed restaurant owned by Taiwan’s favourite son, Jay Chou).

In 2007, The Red House (10 Chengdu Road, Wanhua district. +886 2 2311 9380), which is located in the heart of the bustling Ximending shopping district, followed a similar path. One of the most recognisable buildings in the city, this octagonal, red-brick structure housed the first public market in Taiwan more than a century ago and was recently given an arty facelift. It is now a creative centre that includes two floors of boutiques, a theatre, a livehouse and an open plaza that attracts a weekly market selling handmade wares.

And then there’s The SPOT-Taipei Film House (18, Section 2, Zhongshan North Road, Zhongshan district. +886 2 2511 7786). Housed in the elegant former residence of the US ambassador, this building was redeveloped in 2002 and is now managed by famed Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-hsien. It has since become Taipei’s home for international arthouse cinema and is well worth a few hours of your time.

Arguably Taiwan’s greatest cultural asset is the National Palace Museum (221, Section 2, Zhishan Road, Shilin district. +886 2 2881 2021), a sprawling four-level centre that resembles a traditional palace. It is to Chinese traditional art forms what Florence’s Uffizi is to Italian Renaissance art. The cornerstone of the museum’s collection are the 2,972 crates taken from the Forbidden City’s Palace Museum during the Chinese Civil War and shipped to Taiwan for ‘protection’. It has in its possession some of the best surviving examples of Chinese art in the world. This also means that it’s an inevitable magnet for Mainland tourists, so come prepared for crowds. However, modern art fans may prefer to check out the more modest Museum of Contemporary Art (39 Chang’an West Road, Datong district. +886 2 2552 3721).

In the end, it’s hard to avoid the fact that Taiwan is full of amazing food. But it’s also home to one of the most bizarre restaurants ever created. Founded by artist Hsieh Li-Shiang and reportedly inspired by driftwood she picked up from the beach, the Five Dime Restaurant (8, Lane 32, Section 1, Neihu Road, Zhongshan district. +886 2 8501 1472) is a surreal building that’s a little Gaudi, a bit Taiwanese indigenous art, part primitivism, and just a tad wacky. The food is traditional Taiwanese – decent but not spectacular – but that’s not the reason you come here. And even if you walk away hungry, it’s not exactly a dilemma – in Taipei, there are always the street snacks.

Getting there
Return flights to Taipei Taoyuan International Airport with China Airlines (www.china-airlines.com) cost around 3,134RMB (including taxes).

Where to stay
The Grand Hotel: A landmark building that was formerly Chiang kai-shek’s guesthouse. Rooms from 845RMB per night. www.grand-hotel.org.

W Hotel: This ultra-hip destination opened earlier this year in the chic district of Xinyi. Rooms from 1,880RMB per night. www.starwoodhotels.com/whotels.
Mark Tjhung

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