Driving down Yangmingshan – where I lived with my family when we first moved to Taiwan – to Taipei city in 2000, the scent of pine trees and the pong of sulphur from hot springs would give way to the aroma of fried oyster omelette. Stretches of silvery grass would morph into clusters of grey-walled buildings packed so tightly, 11-year-old me described them as Jenga towers – after the game that calls for players to stack wooden blocks in a tower formation.
Their stark appearance could be attributed to the fact that when around two million Chinese Nationalists arrived in Taiwan in 1949, they thought their stay would be temporary and thus designed buildings with utility in mind; aesthetics were an afterthought.
However, this all changed in 1987, when 38 years of martial law ended, propelling the island towards economic prosperity. For young Taiwanese, this meant more opportunities to pursue activities such as opening coffee shops and creating art – all unheard of a generation ago.
Perhaps it’s the city’s proximity to nature – it’s surrounded by mountains – that gives it its laid-back vibe that inspires creativity. While many ‘Jenga towers’ have been demolished to make way for modern infrastructure, young entrepreneurs intent on preserving the city’s history have converted old shops into independent cafes (above), galleries and boutiques. These establishments form the rhythm of Taipei’s pulse, even if the pace is unhurried.
While Taipei, with its high-speed rail system and burgeoning electronics industry, is undeniably hyper modern, young business owners hold its old trades dear. That sentimentality manifests itself most prominently in Dadaocheng (below), one of Taipei’s oldest districts, where the sweet, woody scent of dried tea leaves drifts down streets lined with banyan trees.
A tea trading hub during the Qing dynasty, this neighbourhood by the Tamsui River thrives on tradition, laced with ingenuity. “Tea shops are everywhere,” Lance Han, founder and design director of design studio Dot Design (below), tells me between his chats with teamakers at the century-old tea wholesaler and retailer Lin Hua Tai Tea in its teahouse in Dadaocheng. The tea aficionado, who has a minimalist showroom where he sells geometric titanium rings made with 3-D printers and mountain-shaped packages of tea fashioned from recycled paper, is currently on a tea-sourcing trip.
Tasting the house’s light and milky Jinxuan brew, along with its sweet and floral green tea, I imagine the shop’s humble grey facade looks the same as it did a century ago. Inside, blue-panelled windows look out to a spacious courtyard with potted tea plants, while a high-ceilinged room stores various tea-producing machines.
Next door, Lin Mao Sen Tea Co. (below) couldn’t look more different, with a woven bamboo ceiling that alludes to traditional methods of tea-sieving. “Dadaocheng is experiencing a second renaissance,” Han says, referring to how younger generations are modernising family enterprises in the area.
Take, for instance, confectionery shop Hoshing 1947 (below). Beyond its simple red-brick entrance, one can hear the clapping sounds of pastries being made with traditional wooden moulds as third-generation owner Ren Jia-lun – and her pastry chefs – prepares modern versions of Taiwanese pastries such as crunchy, fruity hazelnut-walnut rice puffs and seaweed rice puffs, along with other sweet treats such as adzuki bean cakes.
Other time-treasured favourites that have been given a makeover include traditional pastry shop Lee Cake and Wang Tea, which offers charcoal-roasted classic teas such as tieguanyin. Both businesses date back to the 1890s.
Crafted, not churned
Even as new life is breathed into heritage trades, trendy businesses that espouse quality over quantity – and a touch of quaintness – are mushrooming throughout Taipei. Craft beer bar 23 Public (below), near National Taiwan Normal University, is one such business, offering just 12 varieties of craft beer, including the thirst-quenching Passion Fruit Sour.
Post-pint, I head to the nearby Hankou Street, where Heritage Bakery & Cafe (below) is housed in a five-storey brick-walled building that owner Sally Song’s grandfather constructed in 1950. “This area symbolises the beginning of a prosperous period with much urban development,” Song says, explaining her choice of location. “Unfortunately, it has been forgotten due to newer developments in Xinyi District.”
The interior is a mix of old and new, with antique trunks and cabinets belonging to the Song family giving the cafe a vintage charm, and white marble countertops upon which freshly baked cinnamon buns beckon. “I wanted the bakery to be a place where memories are preserved and where the new is instilled into the old,” the San Francisco native shares.
Her pastries are of a similar new-old blend, with both Californian and Taiwanese flavours – think a pink guava chiffon cake made with Taiwanese pink guava that’s been blended into a rich jam, and a seasonal (June to September) mulberry cheese tart.
Over at the periphery of Xinyi District, indie cafes are opening in waves. Take, for instance, AMP Cafe Independent Roaster (above), which entices with the sweet, nutty scent of roasted beans. It’s known for its bottled cold brew – a welcome beverage during Taipei’s scorching summer – but I opt instead for a cup of hand-dripped, natural-processed Ethiopian Yirgacheffe with light, floral notes.
Despite its motto – ‘amp it up’ – patrons usually kick back for hours here. “People are more willing to take the time to appreciate something that is hand-crafted, artisanal and, most importantly, well made,” owner Marco Son observes.
This isn’t limited to sustenance. The streets near Dongmen MRT station may be known for eateries serving beef noodle soup, but a raft of carefully hidden craft shops give the area a fashionable feel.
At leather workshop GreenRoom Ideas Cooperation (above), for instance, craftsmen stitch leather bags and wallets. “Handmade items feel more personal,” says co-founder Ethan Yang, who, despite the showroom’s nondescript location, hopes that the brand gains international recognition. “In the past, Taiwan was an export industry,” he says, referring to the ‘Made in Taiwan’ label. “It’s time to nurture local talent to revive it.”
A 10-minute walk away, 22 Design Studio sells jewellery, watches, writing tools and more rendered in materials such as concrete and steel – a tribute to city life – from the ground floor of a residential building.
Fortunately, it’s easy to escape the concrete jungle come mealtime. Cutting through part of the 26ha Daan Forest Park, I arrive at the popular Jaho, where co-owners Boy Chow and Ken Lin serve a bold version of mom-and-pop-shop noodles (above) with a mix of shredded seaweed and tangy, spicy red sauce.
“We create our own tradition,” says Lin. “You see different generations of families dining together here, much like they would at home.”
Art and soul
With its buzzy creative parks combining design stores, art galleries and performance spaces, Taipei is not short on creative outlets. The less-frequented galleries, showcasing the works of rising Taiwanese artists, are well worth a visit.
The breezy Project Fulfill Art Space (above), for instance, was opened by Lin Pei-Yu in 2008 to give voice to conceptual and new-media artists such as Taipei-based Chou Yu-Cheng, who once tore up the gallery’s walls and floorboards for the sake of his on-site installation about progress that used construction as a metaphor. “Visitors said, ‘Wow, you’re a brave gallery!’” Pei-Yu recalls with a laugh.
Down the same fern-edged street, A Gallery displays playful artworks with poignant undertones in a double-storey house fronted by a tranquil garden. And for large-scale exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art, look no further than Lin & Lin Gallery.
I like to end evenings in Taipei at either fine-dining or ultra-casual venues. For the former, I head to Tairroir (above), where modern Taiwanese dishes using local, seasonal ingredients are presented like works of art. On a chilly evening, I’ll order the soup featuring fresh watercress from Yangmingshan, or the kinmedai (golden-eye snapper) topped with little dried anchovies. “Taiwanese mothers like to feed their children dried anchovies, telling them they make them grow taller,” head chef Kai Ho once shared with a chuckle.
And therein sums up Taipei: a city characterised by a curious blend of tradition and inventiveness, driven by individuals who, while blazing their own paths, still reference their heritage.
PHOTOS: LIN & LIN GALLERY, AMP CAFE INDEPENDENT ROASTER, LIN MAO SEN TEA CO., SUPPLIED
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.