Shopping for Tradition in Taiwan

Shopping for Tradition in Taiwan
Photo Credit: Life of Taiwan

What you need to know

You might want to take some time to wander around the 'old streets' in Taiwan.

International brands are every bit as popular in Taiwan as they are in the West, yet wander around any of Taiwan’s cities and you are sure to come across photogenic shops selling products which hark back to an era before mass marketing and containerisation. In many old neighborhoods, there are businesses which specialize in rice. In such places, various types of Asia’s staple grain are stored in large ceramic pots or square wooden vats, labeled by strain or place of origin. Taiwan grows over 80 percent of the rice it consumes. Since Japan 1895-1945 occupation of Taiwan, many have regarded Chishang – an inland township in Taitung County in Taiwan’s southeast – as producing the island’s finest rice.

Many of the commercial thoroughfares promoted in English and Chinese as "old streets" are nowadays dominated by souvenir shops and snack vendors. That said, many tourists find casual browsing very rewarding, filling both shopping bags and camera memory cards.

Sweeping away evil

Hand-assembled brooms made of phoenix-palm leaves and thorny bamboo sticks are not just pleasing on the eye. Because they are completely biodegradable, no lasting garbage is produced when they are thrown away. Traditionally, such brooms have been employed to sweep away bad influences during folk religious events such as the inauguration of new homes, or religious processions. In such situations, the number of knots in the shell ginger twine which holds the broom together must total either 11 or 13, to represent good luck and masculinity. Unfortunately, very few people under the age of 70 know how to make brooms this way, and few young people are willing to learn.

A mix of ritual, decorative and practical items are sold by a cluster of traditional stores at the western end of Wufu Fourth Road in Kaohsiung, not far from Takao Railway Museum. The large bamboo disks are still used during marriage rites to shade the head of the bride. Waterproof hats and raincoats made of grass and bamboo fiber, like those used by Taiwanese farmers well into the 1950s, are available. But these days nobody buys them to wear in inclement weather. Instead, they are often purchased to decorate living-room walls and coffee shops.

Photo Credit: Life of Taiwan

19th-century character

If you are in the vicinity of Jinshan on the north coast – and there are lots of reasons to be, as the town has both hot springs and appealing coastal scenery – spend a little bit of time wandering along Jinbaoli Old Street. Right in the heart of Jinshan, it served throughout the 1800s as the town’s commercial heart. The street’s name is derived from the language of the Ketagalan tribe, an indigenous ethnic group long ago assimilated into a society dominated by the descendants of Chinese settlers. In the days of yore, Ketagalan porters carried farm produce down through what is now Yangmingshan National Park to barter with merchants of Chinese origin.

While few of the buildings on Jinbaoli Street date from before World War II, the antiquity is tangible, in part because many vendors hawk the kind of items shoppers would have sought several decades ago, such as dried fish and shrimp, loose tea, peanuts, and mushrooms. Seeds of pumpkins, watermelons and sunflowers are bought by those who enjoy snacking on them at home, usually while drinking some of Taiwan’s excellent teas.

Xinhua just outside Tainan is a delightful small town, and Xinhua Old Street is an authentic and active business hub. Both sides of this narrow road are lined with 1920s shophouses adorned with highly visible and attractive Art Deco and Baroque features. Look out for replica signs bearing pictures (such as shoes or bottles of soy sauce) just like those which, a couple of generations ago, helped illiterate shoppers find what they needed. If you like crowds, dive into the daily market which operates between dawn and late morning behind the odd-numbered side of the road.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Life of Taiwan.

(Life of Taiwan, a travel company which organizes bespoke tours of Taiwan, maintains this blog for the convenience of everyone interested in or planning a visit to Taiwan. All blog entries are written or edited by Steven Crook.)

Editor: Olivia Yang