I’ve been to Taipei three times, including this most recent trip, but each visit is always different. This time around, it had been well over five years since I was last in the city; hazy memories of Shilin night market, of coral-coloured sunsets at Danshui and way too many cups of fragrant green milk tea still float about in my brain. This time around, we took a more chilled out approach and avoided the frenetic Ximending area (the Shibuya/Causeway Bay/insert popular city spot full of the young and lithe here of Taipei) and stayed further out east, near the imposing Taipei 101 tower. One of the highlights of the short weekend break was a little jaunt to the weekly Simple Market at the nearby Xinyi Public Assembly Hall in the Xinyi district, a little hive of activity on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Located on the former site of the military families village, a small collection of low-rise cement buildings with narrow alleyways and wide courtyards, the Simple Market takes place once a week on Sunday afternoons. If anything, the spot of land itself is worth visiting even if the market isn’t on – the image of strikingly modern Taipei 101 tower looming in the background brings the disparity of these modest buildings and bomb shelter bunkers into sharp relief.
One of the greatest things about the Taiwanese is their insistence on supporting locally-grown talents. At Simple Market, pretty much everything sold has been designed and made with love in Taiwan, from the jars of local honey flavoured with osmanthus flowers to the myriad of quirky accessories, t-shirts and postcards.
There’s also a few stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, and plenty showcasing one of Taiwan’s best exports – teas. Plus, I’d make a wild guess* and say that the live music performances (no one had taken to the ‘stage’ during my visit) feature homespun artists as well.
* Well, you wouldn’t expect Lady Gaga here, would you?
Right in the middle of all the action is Good Cho’s (好丘), a lifestyle store-cum-café that attracts all manner of citizens, luring them in with the combination of – again – a huge range of locally-produced wares and a reputation for some of the best bagels in town.
Initially, I wasn’t interested in having any, but then those Asian spidey senses started tingling at the sight of a winding queue (and desperate punters piling the maximum 8 bagels per person onto their trays) and I couldn’t resist. (On a side note, this also happened at the night market where I, despite having previously shrugged off that famous treat of gigantic fried chicken slabs, citing indifference, decided to join the throng anyway. Just in case. It was good.)
Of couse, Sunday is possibly the worst day of the week to visit Good Cho’s, as the queues for the takeaway counter curls around the room (which, consequentially, rather inconsiderately obscures some of the tea selections on show in the shop section) and the waiting list for a table is equally lengthy. Not having the time to stick around for a table, I took my place in the waiting throng and purchased two bagels to go – spinach, and honey with carrot were the selections of the day. Good they were too, warmed up for breakfast the next day and slathered with their house pineapple and lemon cream cheese. Then it was back into the fresh air to peruse the rest of the market.
With my pidgin Mandarin (okay, practically non-existent), I could get a sense of the pride these local designers had in their products. One particular man at the Deer & Moose stall (who do wonderfully handcrafted wooden charms) was about to launch into an excited explanation of their brand’s ‘story’ before I regretfully informed him that I was basically a fool and ting bu dong.
A stall selling popsicles caught my eye with their roselle–flavoured ice. Roselle (a type of hibiscus) is suddenly becoming more ubiquitous in Hong Kong recently, and this particular concoction proved to be a refreshing way to beat the sudden heat and humidity that had descended upon Taipei that afternoon. Bits of still-crunchy roselles were dotted throughout the ice, which was sweet, sour and salty all at the same time, like a good piece of umeboshi. Odd but certainly enjoyable.
Midori is a cute little ice cream parlour right next to Good Cho’s, selling sorbets and ice creams made with fruits grown sans pesticides.
One-in-five people I saw were toting cameras. The place is just so darn photogenic – the parade of cute pets out on show certainly added to the charm. A poor grumpy kitty in its cone did seem less impressed with it all, though.
If it isn’t clear already, Simple Market is highly recommended if you – like me – are into local markets that tick all the right boxes: interesting location, fun stalls and good food. Oh, to have something similar in Hong Kong…
Simple Market / Good Cho’s
Shinyi Public Assembly Hall
54 Songqin Street, Taipei City (Xinyi district)
In what was formerly known as the most dangerous city in the world, I encountered not drugs and violence, but zen followers, reinvented slums and party-hard Paisas.
Nearly two decades since Colombia’s drug nightmare reached its climax, Medellín is still struggling to shake off its dark reputation. The twist is that the city – Colombia’s second-most populated after capital Bogotá – could have been a travel agent’s dream. Its oft-forgotten merits include year-round spring weather and remarkable botany; wondrous colonial architecture; a thriving fashion trade and the unmistakeable warmth of its people.
Last month, my mom treated my dad to a meal at the three Michelin-starred Galera a Robuchon in Macau’s fading Lisboa Hotel; yet all I can remember is the shuddering horror that was my main course. And the assortment of women teetering aimlessly around the hotel’s arcade, dressed to the nines at 10 in the morning. Still, top marks for the extraordinary île flottante with caramel custard, though the crackly pop rocks, in this environment, felt like the restaurant’s half-hearted attempt at seeming more ‘of the moment’ than it actually was.
Doesn’t that just seem to describe Macau in a nutshell? This little former Portuguese colony can sometimes seem all glitz and no glamour, with superficial attempts at upping the game. We laughed and laughed at the sheer over-the-top ridiculousness of The Venetian (we had a blast) and craned our necks observing the skeletons of yet another mega casino soon to open across from it. Bigger is always better in this place. We snickered at the confused mess that was Fisherman’s Wharf, with its plastic fantastic volcano replica (nicely foregrounded by a branch of Freshness Burger) and faux Colosseo. And I’m told that the Wynn hotel houses a particularly bonkers ‘tree of prosperity‘ that comes spinning out of the ground.
No fan of bling, gambling or excess (apart from the edible variety, natch), I found the little backstreets of the town a far more interesting place to wander. It’s a cliché, but the contrast between old and new is striking and oddly beautiful. I think these are the parts of Macau that keeps me sane.