Taiwan: Everyday Life

4 12 2008

Whenever I think of Taiwan, certain images pop up for me – people, places, scenes, and of course food. These memories all hold meaning for me and represent the essence of Taiwan in my eyes. Even though I only spent the first few years of my life there, Taiwan still draws me back time and again. It’s not the touristy must-sees that make Taiwan special to me, although I love seeing them too. From the bustling city to the crickets chirping in the countryside, the street stands to the corner convenience store, and my childhood to now, I love the experience of being in Taiwan.

A street in Tianwei, Taiwan.

In the picture above, an old house made in the traditional Chinese style stands in between two residences made from cement and corrugated metal in a tiny town outside of Changhua.  This kind of juxtaposition is played out in towns and cities all over Taiwan. While it’s obvious that no one lives in the house pictured above anymore, it’s not quite abandoned as evidenced by the plants decorating the front. Since this house is situated on the block that has been occupied by my extended family for hundreds of years, it probably belongs to a relative.

Below is another scene that is typical in the countryside in Central Taiwan.

A roadside scene in Central Taiwan.

A small truck sits next to a rusty shed surrounded by a field of crops and some tropical plants. At first glance, this is pretty ordinary. If you look more closely, however, you notice that the driver left the door to the truck open and there is wild dragonfruit growing all along the rusty shed.  You can also see a gutter running next to the shed.

The rusty shed.

To me, this scene is so Taiwanese in so many ways.  The driver was either in a hurry, or left his door open to air out the front of the truck since it’s so hot and humid.  Since everyone knows each other out here in the middle of nowhere, he is unconcerned about leaving his truck unlocked.  The shed is rusty because Taiwan is so wet that nothing that is metal remains pristine.  The phone numbers on the side of the shed are numbers you should call if something is wrong with the field or shed.  You have to be careful driving on the tiny narrow lanes in this town because they are surrounded on both sides by gutters for the rain.

Wild dragonfruit growing on the side of the shed.  It was close enough to the side of the road you could lean over the gutter and pluck it once it’s ripe.

From the countryside we move onto the big city. I am not talking about Taipei, the northern capital, but Kaohsiung, the second city in the south. Whenever I tell other Taiwanese that I am from Kaohsiung, they are usually quite surprised. You see, most Taiwanese who immigrate to the the US are from the richer, more westernized city of Taipei. It’s almost unheard of to be from anywhere outside of Taipei, even Kaohsiung. It is true that not many people can speak English in Kaohsiung and it’s full of independence minded citizens, but it is hardly as unsophisticated or backwater as some believe. In fact, over the last few years Kaohsiung has come into a renaissance with the reclamation and transformation of the Love River (Ai He), the building of its own Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, and the revitalization of many parts of downtown.

But I digress. Why do I love visiting Kaohsiung? Besides the fact that the other side of my family lives here, Kaohsiung has all the big city fun and convenience of Taipei without the glitz and pressure to impress. I love Asian cities and while I do appreciate the very largest cities like Taipei, Tokyo, and Singapore, sometimes I just want to experience a city without all the fuss.  In other cities, I am a tourist because of all the must-sees and must-dos.  In Kaohsiung, I get to be a local.

I can go out on a night on the town with my aunts.  A night out in Kaohsiung might include shopping, eating out, KTV, or a night market. There are fun things to do 24 hours a day.

Notice I sneaked a photo of KFC into this post.

What is Taiwan without my favorite cold treat – shaved ice!

This particular stand was as big as a movie theater. Air conditioned too!

I can go to the market with my aunt:

The fish at this stand were really fresh – they were still flapping around on the ice block!

I can go shopping for household goods with my other aunt.  Here we went to Hola, the Bed Bath & Beyond of Taiwan. This may not seem very exciting to some, but I love finding household gadgets that I cannot get in the US, like fold-able travel chopsticks, a chopstick stand, a cute soy sauce dispenser, and rice bowls. In the US, you have buy from the slim picking of the Asian grocery store.

A small shopping center for household goods and furniture in Kaohsiung.

As you can see, it looks exactly like a Bed Bath & Beyond or the soon to be defunct Linens N Things.

On the way home, we can stop by and buy some raw sugarcane to snack on. Here the old lady cuts off the hard shell of the sugarcane with a machete.

Finally, we get back to my aunt’s place and we can enjoy some the fruits of our labor at the market. My absolute favorite part of Taiwan is definitely the fresh fruit you cannot find anywhere else (outside of Asia).  This and chatting and catching up with my aunts and cousins are pretty much the best parts of visiting Taiwan.

Clockwise from top: Custard Fruit (shik kwia), Apple Pears (len mu), raw sugarcane (gum jia).  These are seasonal fruits that are found in October.

Green oranges, which are actually sweet.

What do I definitely not like about Taiwan?  The huge tropical insects.  I saw this gigantic spider in the bathroom of my grandparents’ house.  Luckily it was so huge I could keep an eye on it.  <shudder>

Despite my fondness of Taiwan, I know my view of daily life here is idealistic since I don’t actually live here.  I’m sure that if I did live in Taiwan, I would find plenty of things that annoy me.  It’s a fact that the standard of living in Taiwan is lower than the United States and I don’t know if I could actually deal with this in my adulthood, not to mention the pressures of living in a Taiwanese society.  Despite these thoughts, I will always have good memories of the visits to the country of my birth.


Google Translate – It’s Magic!

7 05 2008

I was looking at my blog stats the other day when I noticed something very strange. One of my referrers was a Chinese translation of my blog! Apparently, one of my readers had found my page through Google Taiwan and then used the Google Translate function to transform the entire website automatically into Traditional Chinese. You can read more about the background in this Wikipedia entry on Google Translate.

To see my blog in Traditional Chinese, type in “Travels with Sandy” at www.google.com.tw and when the first hit comes up, press the linke titled [翻譯此頁] next to it. You can view any page in Simplified Chinese by going to www.google.com.cn and doing the same thing.

The Chinese to English translation is still in the BETA stage, but seems to have promise. My skills at reading Chinese are not very good so I am not a very good judge, but from what I can read, the translator actually reverses word order when appropriate and translates simple sentences fairly well. However, like any automatic translator, more complex sentences and words with more than one meaning are easily garbled.

Lukang, Part 3

26 10 2007

We wrapped up our visit to Lukang with two Taiwan Living Heritage Artist shops, shrimp monkeys in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and a quick peek at Tianhou Temple.

The main north-south artery that runs through the historic part of Lukang is Jhongshan Road.  On the southern end of Jhongshan Road are the Martial Temple, Wenchang Temple, and Wenkai Academy.  Longshan Temple is also in the southern section of the historic center on Sanmin Road, which is perpendicular to Jhongshan Road.   Meanwhile, the entrance to the cleaned up part of 9-Turns Lane is just off Jhongshan Road on Sinsheng Road north of Longshan Temple.  Tianhou Temple caps off the northern end of historic Lukang and Jhongshan Road.

The first place we visited, at 312 Jhongshan Road, was Master Wu Dun-Hou’s Folk Lantern shop.

I wanted to buy one of the lanterns displayed outside (shown below) but my mom laughed because most of these lanterns were run of the mill lanterns for restaurants, and say things like “fried noodles” or “fish” on them.

Folk Lantern Shop - Lukang

Master Wu Dun-Hou is a renowned creator of traditional Chinese lanterns who is one of the winners of the Living Heritage Awards in Taiwan.  The Living Heritage Awards are given by the Ministry of Education to recognize Taiwan’s top craftsmen.  Lukang is unique in that it claims 6 Living Heritage craftsmen, the most of any city in Taiwan.

Master Wu Dun-Hou

Master Wu has been making lanterns in the traditional way for over sixty years and has devoted his life to developing and passing down this traditional art form.

Folk Lanterns - Lukang

Although Master Wu was not there when we visited, we met one of the artisans who told us about the lanterns.  Most of the lanterns are still hand painted, but some of the smaller, cheaper lanterns are partially printed and finished off by the artisans.  The lanterns inside the store are more suitable for inside the home, unlike the ones displayed outside!  When you purchase a lantern, you can pick an auspicious saying that they will paint on the lanterns for you.  You can then pick them up in about an hour.

Amidst dozens of lanterns are the artist’s paint brushes:

Folk Lantern Artist Tools

We got the yellow lantern with the dragon in the bottom right hand corner of the photo above.

After the lantern shop, we walked up Jhongshan Road to the Tianhou Temple area to eat lunch.  There is a small square outside the temple with dozens of food stands, tea shops, and restaurants.

Lukang - Main Square

Main Square

Like most tourist destinations in Taiwan, Lukang has a bunch of local food specialties. They include oyster omelettes, deep fried oyster cakes, shrimp monkeys (fried mud shrimp), ox-tongue cake, and steamed port buns.

We had oyster omelette and shrimp monkeys for lunch.  Honestly, we were not too impressed with the food here.  It could just be this restaurant, though, which was a little too hole-in-the-wall for our taste, if you know what I mean.
Shrimp Monkeys (Fried Mud Shrimp)

Shrimp Monkeys

Since it started raining again, we were only able to catch a quick outside glimpse of Tianhou Temple.

Tianhou Temple

Tianhou Temple

Our last stop of the day was at another Living Heritage shop called the Divine Woodcarving Shop.  I didn’t realize until we found the shop that its name was literal.  This shop carves religious statues for temples around the island.  It was just past Tianhou Temple on 655 Fusing Road, but it was difficult to spot because it looked like the living room of someone’s house.  One of the master carvers was hard at work carving, but I didn’t want to disturb him.  He was shy about pictures, but let me photograph the wood carvings on display.

Heavenly Carvings

We had to end our trip to Lukang at this point because it started pouring rain.  I would have really liked to see some more sights though!  I think we missed some good stuff.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Craig Ferguson, a photo blogger, did a great series on Lukang with beautiful pictures (on a very sunny day!).

Wandering in Lugang, Part 1

Wandering in Lugang, Part 2

Wandering in Lugang, Part 3

Lukang, Part 2

21 10 2007

After we finished with Longshan Temple, we set out to look for other historic sights in Lukang, including Nine Turns Lane and Gentleman’s Lane. Nine Turns Lane is a long narrow lane, more like an alley, with lots of sharp turns that was built to repel bandits and cold winds in September. Thus its name is not derived from the number of turns, but rather refers to the month of September. The houses and walls running along this lane are among the oldest still standing in Taiwan.

We had a little difficulty finding this narrow lane, and actually ended up walking through real, modern alleys and the non-restored part of the historic lane before we happened upon the part of Nine Turns Lane that is featured in guidebooks. There are signs posted of all the historic sights, and we had a map, but it was still a little hard to find. I suppose if we had come on an ordinary non-rainy day, we could have just followed the crowd. The easiest thing is to just ask a local, but that mostly only works if you speak Chinese or Taiwanese.

We sought out Nine Turns Lane because it sounded really intriguing and romantic. My first impression of this area was that it was a lot smaller and more rundown than my expectations. Obviously, my expectations were off base, and it makes sense that the scale of these historic buildings would be much smaller than modern abodes. People grouped themselves close together to defend against strong winds and pirates, as the name implies.

Lukang Alley

With crumbling structures and mold surrounding it, this part of the lane was not as “touristified” as the official Nine Turns Lane. Old structures, some abandoned and some still occupied, were surrounded by teardowns, more modern but ugly buildings, and empty lots full of detritus, which I felt no need to photograph. There were still some historic gems among the signs of modern living, however. The non-restored buildings also seemed more authentic.

Lukang Alley

As you can tell by the scooters parked outside and the trash piled next to them, local residents still live here. They must have thought it odd that people would find their homes interesting when Lukang first became a tourist attraction. I’m sure they are used to the gawking tourists by now, though.

Lukang Alley

I love the woodwork and brick on these buildings.

Lukang Lane

My mother was not impressed with these houses because they brought back bad memories for her. To her, these buildings represented the poor conditions people lived in when she was a child in Kaohsiung before more modern homes were built and people’s living conditions improved. Her comments really gave us a different perspective of these historic lanes and brought home the point written offhand in many guidebooks – that Lukang only had historic buildings because it refused to modernize when other parts of Taiwan had. So while it is good that these buildings have not been torn down (especially since Taiwan is generally bad at historic preservation), the people of Lukang did pay a price when the town did not modernize. Ideally, the townspeople of places like Lukang should recognize and preserve historic buildings, but then move to more modern abodes either in Lukang or elsewhere. Unfortunately, not everyone has the means to do this.

Lukang Lane

Ugly, more modern (but not that modern), buildings peek out behind the historic buildings.

Lukang Lane

A neighbor has beautified this corner of the lane.

Water Pump

My dad was intrigued by this old water pump. He used them a lot when growing up because there was no running water inside the home. Also, he is an engineer.

Brick Window

Old Windows were made in this brick formation, as you can see in this abandoned building.

Brick Window


The slightly more modern version of these windows, circa 1950. Actually, I think Taiwanese buildings still use these type of security bars on their windows.

Start of Nine Turns Lane

Ah, we have finally reached the “official” part of Nine Turns Lane!

Start of Nine Turns Lane

Signs like these are all over Lukang, so look UP!

Nine Turns Lane

Oh wait, we are still seeing cement buildings!

Shih Yih Hall

Shih Yih Hall

Shih Yih Hall

Shih Yih Hall

Shih Yih Hall

Nine Turns Lane

Looking back to Shih Yih Hall

Nine Turns Lane

This door looks hundreds of years old.

Approaching one of the many turns of Nine Turns Lane…

Nine Turns Lane

Nine Turns Lane

Here a Turn…

Nine Turns Lane

There a turn…

Nine Turns Lane

Hi Dad!

Nine Turns Lane

Around the bend…

I guess on nice days, vendors sell food in this lane.

Nine Turns Lane

Description of Nine Turns Lane

Here is official description of Nine Turns Lane.

Nine Turns Lane

Looking Back at the Last Turn

Nine Turns Lane

Another Turn…

Nine Turns Lane

Nine Turns Lane

Nine Turns Lane

Another twist and turn.

After we reached the end of Nine Turns Lane, we came to a large (modern) intersection that had lots of food stands. We asked a vendor where to find Gentleman’s Alley, aka “Touch Breast Lane.” It was just a few blocks from Nine Turns Lane.

Gentleman’s Lane was so named because it is so narrow that only one person can go at a time, because otherwise touching someone else is unavoidable.

Gentleman's Alley

It was so narrow, we nearly missed it but for this sign. It looked like a gutter from the street.

Gentleman's Alley

We were kind of scratching our heads about why this was an attraction, but I believe the whole of Lukang is better than the sum of the parts.


We were rewarded with this juxtaposition between old and new, although the picture looks a lot nicer than the reality.

Next: Lukang, Part 3.

Lukang, Part 1

14 10 2007

We finished up our visit to Central Taiwan with a trip to nearby Lukang (Lugang), one of Taiwan’s oldest and most historic towns. Our visit was actually on the day that Typhoon Wipha passed by Taiwan, so it was pouring rain much of the day. Luckily, we were still able to see a lot of Lukang in between rain showers. We visited several sites pointed out by our travel guides, including Longshan Temple, Nine Turns Lane, Gentleman’s Alley, Tianhou Temple, and two workshops/shops owned by Living Heritage artists.

Lukang, or “Deer Harbor,” was given this name because long ago herds of deer roamed in the grassy lands next to this natural harbor. Because of this harbor, Lukang became a large and important port for years. At its zenith in the 1600s, Lukang was Taiwan’s second largest town. The harbor began to silt up in the late 1800s, however, effectively marking the end of the town as a commercial center. When the Japanese closed the harbor to large ships in 1895, Lukang largely became a backwater until it was rediscovered as a historic site in the twentieth century.

Lukang Alley

Lukang is, at times, a deceptive tourist attraction. When you first arrive, the town looks like any other small, unremarkable Taiwanese town. In fact, it looks even more rundown than usual. Like many historic areas that are still populated, the actual historic site is dwarfed by the dirty, modern city surrounding it. In addition, not every historic site in Lukang is impressive at first glance. Some are humbling, some are ramshackle, and some require a historical understanding to fully appreciate. Most importantly, in some cases history is not preserved in a building or location, but through artistic tradition and its people.

Lukang is full of two to three hundred year old dilapidated houses surrounded by ugly, more modern cement residences.

An Alley in Lukang

A kindly grandmother agreed to pose for me in this picture. She has lived on 9-turns lane her entire life, and has many grandchildren.

A grandma in Lukang


Our first stop in Lukang was Longshan Temple, which is considered the best preserved Qing Dynasty temple and one the most famous Buddhist temples in Taiwan. The origins of the temple shrine can be traced to 1653, but it was moved to its current site in 1786. This historic temple did not disappoint, and was actually above and beyond our expectations.

The Main Entrance to Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

Unfortunately, much of the temple, including its main hall, was destroyed in the 921 earthquake (September 21, 1999) so visitors will not be able to view the entire temple. Restoration efforts have been underway to repair the damage for many years. About 2/3 of the temple restoration has been completed, so it’s certainly still worth a visit. If you walk down the red brick alley to the right of the entrance of the temple complex, you will come to a side entrance that leads to the Rear Hall of the temple. From there you can walk back towards the middle temple.

The Rear Hall

Longshan Temple

Looking into the Rear Hall

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

A view towards to the Main Hall

Longshan Temple

A view of the back of the Middle Hall

Longshan Temple

Architectural Details

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

Dark close-up of roof detail

Longshan Temple

We decided to take a closer look at the middle hall.

Longshan Temple

The Front of the Middle Hall

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

Dragon Pillars at Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

View from the Front through one of the Side Doors

Longshan Temple

Inside the Middle Hall

Longshan Temple

The Door Guardians

Longshan Temple

Longshan Temple

A View Towards the Rear Hall

Longshan Temple

Next: More on Lukang, including 9-Turns Lane, Gentleman’s Alley, and Living Heritage artists.

A Peaceful Retreat in Central Taiwan

12 10 2007

After visiting my grandparents and our family home, we headed over to the guesthouse we booked to check into our rooms. We stayed at the Hua Su Guest House (Minsu) for two nights. The Hua Su guesthouse is located in an area popular for its many flower and plant gardens and plantations in Tienwei, outside of Changhua.

I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by our stay here. After braving the bustling, crowded, and older city of Kaohsiung, the guesthouse was a welcome retreat. This was my first visit to a minsu, and if this is any indication, it is a wonderful way to see Taiwan. The guesthouse was clean, modern, and uncluttered and the owners were very hospitable. Plus they had free wifi internet and air conditioning!

Entrance to Minsu

Hua Su Guesthouse

A view of the dining pavilion attached to the guesthouse.


Some koi fish swimming in the pond.


The rooms were modest but very clean, with large bathrooms and western style showers. There is no tub, but I think this is standard for a minsu. Our hotel in Taipei didn’t have a tub either. Each room had a flat screen LCD with cable. The internet was off and on, but I think the owner is going to fix that.

Room View

They even had tatami mat rooms for larger parties of people. I peeked in these rooms and took some pictures.

Larger Rooms

Tatami Mat

A large Taiwanese breakfast is included with your room. The guesthouse has an excellent cook! She is fully approved by my picky mom. Here is the typical breakfast at the minsu. Those are sliced asian pears and guava in the middle.

Taiwanese Breakfast

Breakfast is served daily in the dining pavilion. When we were there, there was a large group of coworkers. Their company held their company retreat at the minsu.

Dining Pavilion

And thankfully for those of us who are addicted to coffee, they serve espresso and coffee!

After breakfast, we walked across the street to a flower farm that had a lovely lily pond and garden.

Flower Farm

Flower Farm

Lily Pond

Weeping Willows

Lily Pond

Lily Pond

Lily Pond

A coffee plant

Coffee Plant

Inside the greenhouse



They had tons and tons of my favorite flower – orchids.



Yellow Orchid Plant

More Orchids

Overall, we were really pleased with our stay here. I just didn’t expect there to be a place this nice in the countryside. Apparently, the owners say that all the big politicians have come here, including one of the current presidential candidates. The only downside I can think of is that the owners cannot speak a lot of English, but they are fine with emails.

Because of my bad Chinese, I am not really sure where this minsu is located, so I am attaching the map from their website. All I know is that it is Tianwei, near Yuanlin, and about 45 minutes to Lukang in the west and 45 minutes to Sun Moon Lake in the east.
Hua Su Map

Hua Su Guesthouse

Rates from NT$2000-2500 for a single to NT$4000-5000 for the large tatami room.

Phone: 04-8246799

Email: j8226890@ms12.hinet.net

A Traditional Taiwanese Family Home

8 10 2007

Since we were in the area, we stopped by the family compound to pay our respects to my ancestors.  This is a traditional Chinese family home and features two courtyards – an inner one and an outer courtyard next to each other – that are ringed by outer buildings.  The courtyard buildings are mostly shared by the greater family, while individual families live in the outer buildings.  My dad grew up here and my immediate family used to live in one of the outer buildings before we moved to the city.  My aunts and uncles still live in some of these buildings, although my grandparents moved out when they built their house.  I’m not sure exactly how old these buildings are, but I know my family has been in Taiwan since the Ming Dynasty.

Family Home

The Outer Courtyard

Outer Courtyard

Family Home

View to the Left

View to the Left

View to the Right

View to the Right

The family is in the process of restoring the family compound.  The outer courtyard was restored first.

The Inner Courtyard

Inner Courtyard

Inner Courtyard

As you can see, some of my relatives are still living here.  The family members who live here try to keep things clean and neat.


The alley connecting the outer buildings. 

Outer Buildings

Another courtyard is situated next to the inner courtyard, but it was abandoned as more and more branches of the family moved to the cities for more opportunities.  Hopefully it will be preserved, as it holds historic and personal meaning, but in the meantime I am preserving it in pictures.

Overgrown Courtyard

Old Doors

Old Courtyard

Next: Lots and lots of rain

Journey to Central Taiwan

8 10 2007

After spending some time in Kaohsiung, we headed up to my grandparents’ house near Yuanlin, just outside of Changhua.

But first we had a nice breakfast at my aunt’s.  We had some pastries we bought at Isetan and some fresh papaya milk.  The fruit is definitely sweeter in Taiwan.  It’s all about the food in Taiwan.


Taiwan is one of those Asian countries where there will be something cute on everything, including cake.


We then proceeded to the Kaoshiung train station, and took the fast train (T.C.) to Yuanlin.  The journey took about 2 hours.

Train Details: Bathrooms on trains were spartan but clean.  Luggage went on racks above the seats.  Only people with tickets are allowed on the platform.  However, you may buy a platform pass (very inexpensive) to accompany someone to the platform.  At smaller stations, this is free.  The station will give you a temporary pass in exchange for an official ID.  Keep your tickets because you may need to show them to a conductor.  In addition, you need to give the tickets back to the train people when you leave the station at your destination.

On the platform


The blue trains are the slower commuter trains.

Train station

Our fast and orange train approaches the stop.

Our Train

Orange Train

The train journey was very smooth and comfortable.  We were content to snack and watch the Taiwanese countryside as we sped by.  There were lots of rice fields, fish farms, and other unidentified plant growth.  It’s hard to tell with these pictures, but Taiwan is very very green. 

Rice Fields


We also passed by suburbs, towns, and cities.

Small Town

Small Towns

As we got closer to Central Taiwan, we saw more and more mountains and hills.

View from Train

When we arrived, we headed over to my grandparents’ house.  My grandparents live among fruit trees and rice fields in the Taiwanese countryside.  There is so much moisture everywhere, plants just explode in abundance.


There are papaya trees, pear trees, bonzai, and many other plants, as evidenced in the photo below.

Lush Countryside

We had a very nice visit with my grandparents.  I haven’t seen them in years, so it was a happy reunion.  They were really glad to finally meet Charles.  Everyone drank lots of Apple Sidra (my favorite Taiwanese soda).

Next: A visit to the family compound

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