Unlike many of my three million fellow Chinese-Indonesians in the country, I grew up in a family that was pretty removed from the Chinese culture. I never celebrated Cheng Beng or Cap Go Meh, nor did I know when to eat bakcang or kue keranjang. One that I especially yearned for growing up was to celebrate the Lunar New Year the true Chinese way.
So, when my Personal Development Fund (PDF) from Maverick was due this year, I used it to fly to Taipei, Taiwan just in time for the Lunar New Year.
I expected lots of festivity, with dim sum a-plenty and firecrackers going off every few meters. Instead I found…
Lots of peace and quiet
Turns out the city halted into a standstill for a week around the Lunar New Year. Shops and restaurants were closed – even the original Din Tai Fung branch, and the famous Yong Kang Beef Noodle that I had been salivating for.
To mend my broken heart, I ventured outside Taipei borders. Only 1.5-hour drive away, I found myself surrounded by hills that formed tall walls of grey and green. They bordered the driveway, which snaked up and down their sides. Nestled among these hills were Shifen and Jiufen. These towns would normally bustle with tourists and shop owners, but they were quiet when I was there.
Set against this tone, I experienced so many ups and downs, but mostly ups, within just one short day.
I crossed a bridge over the softly running Keelung River, and got myself disappointed yet again when I found out that the path to the Shifen Waterfall was closed for the New Year. Nearby at Shifen Old Street, I happily flew a lantern after writing down my hopes on its four sides. Then I was brought down by an underwhelming lunch at Jiufen, which was the inspiration behind the Ghibli Studio movie, Spirited Away.
Not letting it dampen my spirit, I followed the trail of an old gold mining cart to the Yin-and-Yang Sea, and feasted my eyes on the stunning sight of the sea melting into the sky. I hiked to another waterfall called The Golden Waterfall. Then, a few kilometers away at Yehliu Geopark, I marveled at unique geological formations with names just as imaginative, such as the Queen’s Head and the Fairy’s Shoe.
These ups and downs reminded me of what a MavAlumni, Beradadisini, wrote on her blog: when travelling, you’re bound to lose some and win some. That’s what matures you.
Parks and creative hubs
Back in Taipei and wandering its empty streets, I fell in love with how often I came across public spaces where people could wind down and get creative.
Huashan 1914 Creative Park, for instance, was filled with pop-up shops, artsy stores, and child-friendly exhibitions. Most of them were closed, of course, when I was there. But I was happy enough to explore and take photos against its many aesthetic-looking walls. (“Hashtag aesthetic”, as millennials would say.)
Its sister space, the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, sat on an old tobacco factory some distance away. When I visited, there was a pop-up market going on. I had to use every bit of my willpower to not cash out all my money on decorative knickknacks and postcards. Unfortunately, I could not sit on one of the benches at the park and write there as I intended to, because the rain started falling.
I had to take refuge at the nearby Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and even this space was not as what I expected. You would guess it, being a national landmark, to have a pretty solemn atmosphere. Instead, the Memorial Hall was brimming with the young dancing the afternoon away, and the old practicing taiji or brushing up their mahjong skills.
It filled me with so much creative energy that my soul battery desperately needed!
Friendly and not-so-friendly locals
During my three-day stay, I was lucky enough to meet some interesting people. Three left a lasting impression; one for each day I was there.
First was Roger, the kind middle-aged man who drove me around outside Taipei on my first day. He was determined to help me make the most of my trip. Even before I got to Taiwan, we would chat on Whatsapp and he’d advise me on the best itinerary. As soon as I landed, he greeted me with a picture of Kumamon saying welcome. He also offered me some cough drops to soothe my sore throat, and doubled up as my tour guide even when it was outside his scope of work as my rental car driver. The interesting part? He spoke no English whatsoever, so I had to rely on my kindergarten-level Mandarin and left the rest to Google Translate when communicating with him. Still, kindness broke any language barrier and we were able to bond. We continued to exchange greetings on the Chinese festivals even after I went home.
My second day back in Taipei, which fell on the exact day of the Lunar New Year, I was desperate to find restaurants that were open. I almost panicked since I had gastritis and could not eat late, but then I saw a small Chinese diner still open. I made my way there and greeted the owner, who was serving a table, in Mandarin. She smiled at me and replied in fast Mandarin. As soon as I asked for an English menu, her face fell. She then started to hush me away, waving the menu at my back, all the time saying, “Jintian meiyou!”(Not today!) That was the story of how I ended up having Pizza Hut for my Lunar New Year lunch in Taipei. It may sound a bit sad, but actually now when I look back to this day I can’t help but laugh.
The last person I met who left a lasting impression was a female Indonesian migrant worker. We met at Shilin Night Market. She worked as a caretaker of a couple of Taiwanese seniors, and she was accompanying them when she met me. The three of them happened to sit on a table next to mine, and she would throw her glances my way every time I talked in Indonesian. Finally, she seemed to have mustered the courage and asked me in Mandarin, “Inni ren ma?” (Are you Indonesian?”) I nodded and smiled, and we chatted as we enjoyed our oyster omelet and fried baby crabs. It was the best dinner I had in Taipei.
Splash of Taipei spirit
I came to Taipei hoping to immerse myself in the hustle and bustle of one of the busiest cities in Asia, and above all re-connect with my Chinese roots. Reading what I’ve told you so far, you might think that my mission was a big fail.
Luckily, however, fate would have it that I still got to see a splash of Taipei spirit the way I imagined it would be.
Just a throw of stone away from my hotel, lay Ximending. This downtown area was alive well into the late of night, and I got to enjoy all the bubble tea to my heart’s content. Stuffing my face with street food while pushed around in the crowd, and watching different street performers every night, helped maintain the energy level of the city girl within me.
On top of that, I decided to pay a visit to the Longshan Temple on my last day in the city. When I did, I walked along the street leading to the temple just in time for me to hear the last few bangs of some firecrackers going off.
Then, arriving at the main gate of the temple, I looked up and saw that a religious procession was taking place under its massive structure. Hundreds and hundreds of people walked slowly in lines, circling two huge statues and chanting prayers under their stares, before they entered the main building to place their offerings to the gods.
Afterward, just as I stepped out of the temple, a group of dragon dancers began their performance. It was not planned, but like a clockwork the universe conspired to put them all together. The sound of the gongs filled the air and I closed my eyes, soaking up all the energy of the Lunar New Year that I had been dreaming of.
Written by Marsha Imaniara, our Senior Consultant.