Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Taiwan's sun city

Taichung offers an unusual blend of attractions for creatures of the day and of the night

By Jonathan Adams

(an edited version appeared in Silkroad, Dragonair's in-flight magazine)

It's the city known for having Taiwan's best weather. Tucked behind the high central mountain range on the island's western plain, Taichung is sheltered from many of the typhoons and seasonal rains that batter the island's east coast and northern capital, Taipei.

The result is the island's sunniest skies. That’s reflected in one of the city’s culinary specialties, the scrumptious taiyang bing or “sun cake”—a circular pocket of flaky dough with gooey, sweet filling inside.

But when the sun goes down over Taichung’s 1 million citizens, it also becomes Taiwan’s “sin city.” Taichung, the island’s third largest city after Taipei and Kaohsiung, has long had a reputation as a gangster’s playground. Las Vegas-style districts burst with pachinko parlors, massive, neon-lit KTVs (Taiwanese karaoke halls) and high-end “love motels” offering two hours or more in a luxury hideaway. Cabdrivers and other locals will tell you that many of these joints are owned and frequented by hei dao ren—(“black way” people or gangsters.)

Meanwhile, scantily-clad "betel-nut beauties" sell the mildly-intoxicating nut from garish, transparent booths that dot the city.

Not surprisingly, the government omits these details from its many promotional brochures.

Still, Taichung’s gaudy underworld is just one of the city’s many faces. Locals insist there’s little danger here for foreign tourists. The city government—under its jolly, energetic mayor Jason Hu—has been touting Taichung’s cultural attractions: Its fame as the birthplace of Taiwan’s world-famous “bubble tea”, its baked specialties, family-friendly parks, world-class museums and musical events. In November 2007 it hosted games for the Baseball World Cup and Asian Championship at its new international stadium downtown. With its recently opened international airport and nearby high-speed rail station, Taichung is more accessible than ever.

Indeed, it stands ready to become a hub for direct cross-strait flights, should Taiwan and China ever manage to ink an agreement (Now, all mainland-bound passengers must change planes in a third location such as Hong Kong or Macau).

And in 2009, it plans to open the jewel in the city’s crown: an eye-catching metropolitan opera house designed by renowned Japanese architect Toyo Ito.

In short, Taichung is making a bid to shed its seedy image and become a world-class city. Mayor Hu says the city’s already made great strides in the last six years. Illegal sex establishments have been reduced by nearly 80%. The massive Central Taiwan Science Park nearby is attracting high-end chip, flat-panel and other technology companies. With the nation’s highest proportion of budget expenditures on education, science and culture, Taichung is packed with universities—almost one third of the population are students. And that population is swelling as the city attracts more and more white-collar Taiwanese.

Hu notes that a Taiwanese magazine recently ranked Taichung as the island’s most “livable” city. “People’s impression is hard to change, it will take time,” said Hu. “But the city’s getting better and better. With the high-speed rail, our own international airport and hopefully cross-strait air and sea links, Taichung will be very international.”

In that respect it’s still a work in progress; a city with a split personality. Even some of the locals are skeptical of Hu’s vision; it’s not uncommon to hear them grumble that the new stadium and airport are just boondoggles. But such down-to-earth pragmatism, along with the city’s unpolished rough edges and outsized ambitions, are all part of Taichung’s charm.

Colorful past

The earliest inhabitants of the area around Taichung were Aborigines of Austronesian—not Han Chinese—stock. It was an unremarkable patch of the western plains during Taiwan’s eclectic past as a pirate haven, Dutch colony, and destination for adventurous Chinese settlers. Then, in the early 18th century, the Qing decided to establish a settlement and garrison here, bringing it into the fold of its massive empire.

In 1895 the Qing ceded Taiwan to the Japanese. Taichung—then called Taichu—became a focus for Japan’s development of the island. The Japanese built Taichung Park, which remains a popular spot today. They also built a city hall and linked up the city to a new north-south rail line.

When Taiwan was turned over to the Chinese Kuomintang government after World War II, it hosted a US air base outside the city, as part of an anti-communist front line during the Cold War. US forces withdrew after 1979, when the US normalized relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Now, after a long lull, the city is being revitalized. Its changing face reflects Taiwan’s rising standard of living. The crowded night markets bustle with frenzied activity and are rich with the aroma of Taiwanese snacks. Locals and tourist stroll down the pedestrian-only Jingming 1st street or relax in outdoor cafes more reminiscent of Europe than most of Taiwan. Parents take their kids and dogs to the spacious green lawns outside the fine arts museum on weekends.

The area near the old train station used to be popular with locals. Now it’s a Sunday hangout for Indonesians laborers who now do the factory work that Taiwanese aren't willing to do so cheaply, and caregivers that newly rich Taiwanese can now afford.

The locals prefer a more upscale, newer area to the northwest—nicknamed “qiqi”—that’s clustered around the sleek Xinkong Mitsukoshi department store. Such upscale attractions represent how far Taiwan has come since the 1950s, when it was an agriculture-based economy still struggling to move into manufacturing for export.

Taichung used to be ridiculed by other Taiwanese as a cultural wasteland. The counties around the city have long been Taiwan's poorest, with land that’s not as fertile as that further south. Pockets of poverty still persist. But Taichung’s changing profile is a sign of how now-wealthy Taiwanese are putting a higher priority on arts, green spaces and quality of life.


Taiwan Fine Arts Museum (#2, Section 1, Wu chuan West Road, (04) 2372-3552, http://www.ntmofa.gov.tw/). This first-rate museum holds the world’s largest collection of Taiwanese art. The museum hosts a wide variety of temporary exhibitions.

National Museum of Natural Science and Botanical Garden (#1 Guancian Road, (04) 2322-6940, http://www.nmns.edu.tw/). This is a favorite of Taiwanese families, with hands-on, interactive exhibits designed to make learning scientific principles fun for kids. The grounds also include an IMAX theater and a lush botanical garden.

Parks: The city is dotted with sprawling green areas that are especially popular with Taichung’s middle-class and wealthy families. Newlyweds decked out in Western, Oriental or themed attire crowd into Taichung Park on weekends for their wedding photos. Lovers amble the park or go pleasure-boating on the small lake inside.

Another popular destination is the Fengle Sculpture Park in the city’s southwest sector.

Shopping: local youngsters flock to the alleys around Yizhong Street (beside National Taichung First Senior High School) for good deals on the latest fashions. More upscale shoppers head to the newer part of the city near the corner of Taichunggang and Liming Roads, around Tiger City and the Xinkong Mitsukoshi department store.

Tunghai University: The area near Tunghai University is still popular with students and artists. Attractions include an “art street” west of the university off Taichunggang Road, and a university chapel designed by world-famous architect I.M. Pei.

Dakeng Scenic area: A short cab ride northeast of the city will take you into the mountains. Get off on Dongshan Road at the former Junggong Primary School, which was damaged in the massive earthquake of September 21, 1999. Nearby are the trailheads for several short, attractive hikes. Don’t expect the wilderness; this being Taiwan, the “trail” is lined with outdoor KTVs, and vendors hawking fruit juice and other refreshments. Further into the scenic area on Dongshan Road, attractions include natural hot springs, fruit farms, golf courses, and longer hikes through hills teeming with macaques and other wildlife.

Taichung is also an excellent hopping-off point for excursions in central Taiwan. Highlights include Sun Moon Lake to the southeast, a sacred Aboriginal spot and former retreat for KMT strongman Chiang Kai-shek. The lake boasts one of Taiwan’s most luxurious hotels, the Lalu (http://www.lalu.com.tw/, (04) 9-285-6888). Its massive swimming pool and stunning lake views make it a honeymoon destination for locals.

Another popular spot is Qingjing Farms, a mountain retreat that’s also in Nantou County to the east of Taichung.


Many of Taichung’s local specialties can be found at unpretentious night markets or streetside stalls. Adventurous souls can try the gelatinous chicken feet, baked potato with cheese and corn, or wash down fried chicken breast with an unusual blend of Heineken beer and green or red tea.

The city is home to one of Taiwan’s largest night markets, the Fengjia Night Market in the Xitun District, next to Fengjia University.

But perhaps the city’s most distinctive treats are its bubble tea, baked goods and other desserts. First, the bubble tea. Chen Shui Tang tea house claims it invented the famous concoction in the 1980s, though another local chain disputes this. The product originated from experiments with shaken tea drinks to attract new customers. Small tapioca balls were dumped in—along with straws wide enough to suck them up from the bottom of the cup—and the result was a fad that spread worldwide.

The chain’s most popular location at Jingming 1st Street will be closed for renovation until at least January 2008. But tourists can visit one of their ten other sites around the city, such as their flagship store at #30 Siwei Street (04-2327-3647). On offer is the original hot or cold “pearl milk tea” and a wide range of variations. Tasty snacks such as dried shrimp sauce noodles with pork slices, or sesame oil with thin noodles, are also served.

For a taste of Taiwanese cuisine, head to Lu Guang Qi Cun, in the hills overlooking Taichung (#11-2 Beikeng Lane, Beitun District, (04) 2239-0707). Here, an enterprising local has built a nostalgic homage to 50s and 60s Taiwan, with bamboo partitions, dark wood floors and exposed roof beams, decorations from Taiwan’s distinctive “budaixi” or glove puppet theaters, and a massive collection of records and bric-a-brac from a more innocent age. The restaurant offers an excellent nighttime view of the city from its large outdoor patio.

The food’s tasty too, drawing on all-natural products from the nearby Dakeng Scenic Area. Try the luguang sifangcai (fried pork strips with veggies and hot red peppers) and sunzi gao (radish cakes with a spicy sauce), washed down with suan meizi (sour fruitjuice).

If you’re a dessert lover, make a stop at the Yizhong Street district for a taste of Taichung’s feng ren bing, an eclectic down-home fusion of sweet, sour and red bean tastes that will send your tastebuds spinning. The stand across from Taichung First High School claims to have spooned out the stuff for more than 50 years.

Pie and cake-lovers should head to the nearby Rose Pie (#10 Taiyang Road, (04) 2229-1566).

And before you leave Taichung, be sure to stop by the Taiyang Bakery (Taiyangdang Bingdian, #23 Ziyou Road Section 2, (04) 2222-2662) to get a box of the city’s famous sun cakes. The shop guards its recipe jealously; no photographs of the kitchen are allowed in the kitchen lest trade secrets leak to competitors.

For an artsy dining experience, head to the Five-cent Driftwood House (#3 Shizheng North Third Road, (04) 2254-5678), with a funky exterior and castle-like interior.

High-end food options include the Sun Yat-sen Mansion (27 Wuquan West 6th Street, (04) 2377-0808, NT$1200 (HKD$285) and up, reservations required), and Tan-tsu Mien (#215 Huamei West Road Section 2, (04) 2312-3288), for gourmet seafood-lovers.


The Golden Jaguar (#64-4 Taichungkang Road Section 2, at the corner of Wenxin Road) is a massive neon palace that’s reputed to be one of Taiwan’s most expensive KTVs. Look for the black luxury cars with tinted windows lined up outside, and the armies of black-suited security guards. One hour will set you back NT$1,320 (HKD$315), not including food, drink and other charges.

Xaga is an upscale lounge and nightclub for Taichung’s beautiful things (#120 Henan Road Section 3, in the basement at Tiger City mall, 09-20-080-993). No jeans, flip-flops or sneakers allowed, entrance is NT$650 (HKD$155) on weekends.

For more relaxed pub fun, head to the Frog, a Mexican restaurant and watering hole popular with expats and locals (#105 Huamei West Street Section 1, 04-2321-1197, http://www.frogpub.com/). It’s packed with foosball tables, darts and plenty of beers. Upstairsis the Grooveyard, a small, laid-back live music venues. Both establishments are in the central pub district that's packed with plenty of other bars and restaurants serving all types of international cuisines.


Taichung has several high-end accommodations to choose from, with all the perks that international businessmen and other regular travelers expect. Many dot the city’s main thoroughfare, Taichungkang Road.

Splendor Taichung (#1049 Jian Shing Road, (04) 2328-8000, http://www.thesplendor-tc.com/, rooms NT$6,500 (HKD1,545) and up.) Highlights include an outdoor pool, oriental-style spa, Chinese and Mediterranean restaurants and cigar and piano bars.

Evergreen Laurel (#6 Taichungkang Road Section 2, 04-2313-9988, rooms NT$6,400 (HKD1,522) and up). Creature comforts include a swimming pool, gym, sauna, spa services, teppanyaki and Cantonese restaurants, and an Italian-style cafe.

Windsor Hotel (#78-3, Taichungkang Road Sections 3, (04) 2465-6555, http://www.windsortaiwan.com/, rooms NT$8,800 (HKD2,093) and up). Includes five restaurants and a wine and cigar bar, swimming pool, gym and banquet and conference room.

Note: As with most of Taiwan, there’s no standard system for Romanizing Taichung’s place names. The capital Taipei now officially uses the mainland’s pinyin system, but other parts of the island haven’t followed suit. That means it’s common to see the same street name spelled three or four different ways. If in doubt, ask your hotel to concierge to confirm names and addresses, and write destinations in Chinese to give to your cabdriver.

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