These Treasures Of Old Taipei Are Hidden In Plain Sight
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In this city, paragons of the past stand hidden in plain view, eclipsed by the perennial popularity of modern favourites
By Pamela Chow; Photos: Pamela Chow
At 9.30 a.m., we arrived on Yongkang Street where many shops were still asleep behind shutters. We weren’t there to jostle with the queue at the original Din Tai Fung, nor were we joining the line outside Smoothie House to have mango shaved ice for breakfast.
Instead, in the cool spring weather, we headed through a residential block to a little eatery called Lucens (呂桑食堂). Serving traditional food from Yilan, this quiet cafeteria is a hidden gem amongst its more popular neighbours.
Its rich bubbling chicken broth soothed the soul, and its signature fried cake – creamy, fluffy starch simmered in chicken fat – was a burst of savoury flavour for such a humble-looking dish.
Even in a tourist-swarmed area like Yongkang Street, authentic and unpretentious glimpses of old Taiwan still thrive, discoverable only to those who know where to look.
Sniffing out old gems
Happily full, we took a stroll to our next stop and encountered a surprising find in the Da’an District. It was an old Japanese house, complete with tatami mats, wooden flooring and paper screen doors.
Qingtian 76 (青田七六) whisks you back to 1930s Taiwan, when the estate was built by Japanese professors. Today, the official Municipal Relic houses a quaint café, where one can stretch out on tatami, enjoy green tea and a Japanese sugar roll, and watch the day drift slowly by.
In the north section of Dadaocheng, we toiled over sieves like rice merchants of old Taipei.
Our day continued with a visit to the iconic Dadaocheng, a popular destination we thought we were familiar with. However, we were brought to the lesser-known north section of Dihua Street, where some of its oldest buildings – dating as far back as 1851 – stand.
Stoic stone shophouses rose from left and right, hiding silent tea shops, basket weavers and rice mills. In a regeneration space named Rice and Shine, we toiled over sieves like rice merchants of old Taipei, painstakingly sifting with a humble straw brush.
Like grains sieved for harvest, the hints of history between Taipei’s modern buildings emerged from hiding, and I was starting to gain a new appreciation for the ever-popular city.
You can pick seasonal lilies on a flower farm at Yangmingshan National Park.
Uncovering the countryside
The next day found me standing in the middle of a flower farm at Yangmingshan National Park. As the soft mush of watered soil hugged my shoes, I glanced up cautiously from the calla lily gripped in my hand.
“Just pull it out,” my guide laughed. Although we had already paid 100 NTD ($4.20) to pick the flowers, my natural Singaporean ‘instinct’ was worried about getting fined, even in the misty mountains of Taipei. When I tugged at it firmly, the lily slid out with an audible “pop” at the stem. These beauties bloom between March to May at Bamboo Lake, and you’ll get to keep eight stems of this seasonal flower.
After a morning working the fields, we were craving for a hearty brunch. Downhill, our car entered what seemed like a field of desolated army barracks. But lo and behold, the road revealed a quaint café and bakery built into two of the lots. This was where I tasted some of the best cream pastries in Taiwan.
Yannick at Yangmingshan Shanzaihou keeps the original 1950s structure and its iron window grilles. The café is known for their zesty lemon meringue tart – we managed to snag the last piece off the shelf – as well as a light and milky cream tart.
After feasting on American-style treats, we hopped to the bakery next door for a cupcake class featuring their famous milk cream. On cooler days, visitors often bring their pastries outside to picnic under the 100-year-old tree in the backyard. If you’re lucky, the resident dog may swing by for a visit.
Photo: Ming-yen Hsu / flickr.com
In the heart of the city
Most people know about Taipei 101, but not many know of the interesting historical site located just two blocks from the iconic tower.
Si Si Nan Chun, or South Village #44, is the first and oldest remaining military family village in Taipei. We took our time to explore the nooks and crannies of this campus, darting through its greying buildings and colourful doors.
This was not my virgin trip to Taiwan, but between flower picking, and exploring hidden cafes and old buildings, it was as though a new Taipei had unveiled itself to me.
Who knew that such well-preserved beacons of an era bygone were standing unnoticed by tourists right by the some of the city’s most popular spots?
The next time I stop by this bustling, modern city, I’ll be sure to keep my eyes peeled for these secrets and more.
What’s in her bag?
Our writer’s travel essentials for Taipei
1. Sleek portable charger
This portable charger earned its spot in all my carry-ons with its slim width.
2. Hard copy of itinerary
Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer holding a hard copy of my programme and E-ticket instead of relying on my phone.
3. Narrative Clip
When I found my hands full while climbing, shopping and cooking, this tiny camera captured moments that I couldn’t. It links up to the Narrative app for transfers on the go.
4. Portable WiFi router
This nifty fellow was a big life-saver. Unlimited access to Facebook and Instagram? Why not!
Exclusive: Receive a discount on your WiFi router rental with Weekender. Visit weekender.com.sg/w/top-travel-steals-of-the-month for discount codes.
Weekender would like to thank the Taipei City Government for hosting us.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of Weekender, Issue 154, June 10 – June 23, 2016, with the headline ‘Discover the treasures of old Taipei’.