New Year Traditions in Old Taipei

If you are a visitor to Taipei during around February, without a doubt you would have heard to hit up Dihua Street in Dadaocheng (迪化街,大稻埕) for its hustle and bustle as locals prepare for the new year.  The usual quiet and calm of old Dadaocheng will abruptly change, becoming loud and spritely of people eager to prepare for Taiwan’s most important celebration. I was one with the throng of people yesterday, sampling all sorts of delicacies that would only be be found this time of the year.

Dadaocheng is one of Taipei’s oldest districts. A wander through the area will give you a rough idea that this is the place for tea, Chinese medicine and old architecture. It became a popular base for foreign exports in tea and textiles after Taiwan opened its doors to Western trade following the Second Opium War (1856-1860). Dadaocheng quickly grew as one of Taiwan’s largest cities at the time, attracting locals from all over Taiwan and foreign merchants alike. Soon after the Japanese built the railway system, connecting major commercial ports such as Tamsui and Keelung to Taipei however, Dadaocheng’s importance declined and major companies left the city for greener pastures.

An example of the unique buildings of Dihua Street. Tall and narrow, this is typical of Ming-style houses. However the obvious influence of Western-style adornment shows just how rich and diverse Dadaocheng was in its hay day.

These days, Dadaocheng is a popular destination for visitors wanting a glimpse of Taipei’s glory days. A stroll down Dihua Street will leave most architecture geeks giddy. From Fujian and Japanese Colonial style buildings, to those of the European Baroque and Classical periods, these nostalgic facades are enough to impress even the most architecturally unphased. Thanks to heavy restoration, many buildings have been salvaged and repurposed for creative spaces. ArtYard1 for example was once an age-old Chinese pharmacy that was left abandoned after a fire. The building is now an interesting boutique and coffee shop, selling ceramics, textiles and vintage books.

This eclectic mix of old and new, of puppet museumsart galleries, Chinese apothecaries, tea houses and temples, breathes new life into what was once a forgotten reminder of Taiwan’s past, making Dadaocheng worthy of your time for some urban exploring.

Yesterday however, the nostalgic imagery gave way to roadside stalls and makeshift tents housing vendors hoping to bring in the new year with even more wealth. Meanwhile locals look to get their hands on the necessities for the eve’s dinner and what would follow it, a whole week or more of continual eating, drinking and merriment. Just like what Christmas is to Western societies, celebrating Lunar New Year is heavily dependent on gathering with family and friends and feasting appropriately. By which that means, eating plenty and eating frequently. The cultural belief that by bringing in the new year with such abundance allows for the rest of the year to be just as lavish and bountiful is further incentive to bust out that wallet, forget about budgeting (don’t be stingy at new years or for the rest of your days in the year you’ll be scrimping), and buy whatever it is that will complete the dinner table and adequately serve your guests.

So it is no surprise that locals flock to Dadaocheng in the week leading to Lunar New Year. The area became a huge purveyor of not only traditional food and snacks, but also decorations. Hand-painted calligraphy is particularly welcomed here as it is tradition to grace doors and gates with well wishes written on bright red paper to bless all those who pass through them.

Though the market heavily stress old Chinese tradition, people from all walks of life were seen jostling about. Whether elderly or young, the local or the foreigner, everyone wanted to take part in this atmospheric scene that only takes place once a year. As I waddled along with the crowds with my friends, sampling everything we could get our hands on, I took in the sights and smells of not only delicious food, such as what probably is the most delicious roasted pork knuckle and hock ham I’ve had to date, but also the unique odours of strange-looking roots and herbs, which come from the Chinese apothecaries that line the streets.

I am not one that is too fond of crowds, but I felt every bit revitalised experiencing Taipei’s greatest Lunar New Years market. Taipei falling into a sudden sleepy slumber while shops close and families retreat back to their homes on the eve of the new year made it especially reassuring that I didn’t miss some of the excitement. Having our own traditions when it comes to celebrating Lunar New Year in my family, it was rather comforting to come across some imagery that I hold close to heart despite not being with them.

The sporatic sounds of firecrackers and fireworks are now being heard around the neighbourhood, marking that the Year of the Monkey is finally here.

And with that I wish you all a very happy year ahead! May luck, good health and prosperity follow you wherever you  go!

新年快樂, 萬事如意!!!