Back over calendar new year I was in Taipei for about a week of vacation. I had taken the camera along for candid photos and really meant to relax during the downtime, but it was hard not to “go to work” with the city’s famously kinetic street life swarming around me. Nothing typifies this more than the night markets (夜市 yeshi).
Taiwan’s night markets are in constant flux. Many begin as local affairs, offering low cost practical necessities, simple handicrafts and small dish, tapas-like foods known as xiaochi (小吃). Over time, businesses change to ones offering higher quality (and more expensive) fare in more polished settings. Eventually, retail chains and other large commercial operations locate in or near the night markets to take advantage of the atmosphere and foot traffic. Popular markets in the center of Taipei, such as Shilin and Raohe, are examples of those that have moved the furthest along this continuum, and in recent times have been regarded as geared more to tourist interests than local needs.
The night market on Lane 737 (737巷) in Neihu District may no longer be in its primordial state, but it’s a bit closer to the original feel and intention of the markets compared with the larger and more centrally located ones. It probably helps that its location, in a dense residential neighborhood at the foot of the mountains to the northeast of the city center, both limits its size and puts it beyond the radar of many short-term visitors.
Though there are many things to see, do and buy at night markets, eating is probably at or near the top of almost everyone’s list. It wasn’t until I was back home and looking over the images in Lightroom that I realized just about every photo I took had something in it related to food.
Eat food… check.
These food stalls, including the one where we ate, are part of a purpose-built covered structure that is open on its sides and fronts onto Lane 737.
More common, and more indicative of the roots of the market, are these movable food carts that begin appearing on the sidewalk and edge of the street once the sun becomes low in the sky.
The signs of commercialization are appearing in 737, too. Family Mart, 7-Eleven, Watsons, McDonald’s and other usual suspects have supplanted some of the fixed shop fronts.
Some of the street side stalls are just extensions of the shops behind them, but the more unique offerings tend to be from the freestanding carts.
Markets like this make use of normal streets that are regular thoroughfares in the daytime. As night approaches some vehicles, particularly scooters, continue to try to assert their dominance of the road. Eventually, foot traffic becomes so dense that all but the most obstinate drivers are forced to proceed slowly or avoid the street, but the transition period can be a little dicey, especially for children.
In parts of the street, scooters are parked so densely that pedestrians have to wade through them to get to the vendors. Though, I suppose I’d rather have to deal with a scooter than a car.
Some of the stores have painted lines for scooter parking on the street. While this is perfectly sensible during the daytime, the spots remain available and encourage continued traffic during the busy market hours. Some might say this is just a characteristic of Taiwan, and that the buzzing vehicles are part of the lively atmosphere. I think the balance point between convenient access and safety for everyone hasn’t yet been reached. Perhaps parking only on side streets during peak hours would be enough.
In the larger markets neon and backlit displays dominate the landscape. 737 has some of these too, but the food remains its own best advertising.
Taiwanese version of drive-through fast food
We ended up staying out in Neihu for a few days because of limited hotel vacancies due to the new year holiday, but I’m really glad we got to observe and take part in this kind of daily life while we were there. Though you have to learn to grow eyes on the back of your head to spot quickly turning scooters, on balance the 737 night market is a very rich but friendly and low-key experience. New, and old but expanding, Chinese cities could learn quite a bit from neighborhoods like this as they lay the roads that will shape their character for the foreseeable future.