After sunset in Taiwan, when the stars start to twinkle, night markets are crowded with people from all walks of life. To Taiwanese, night markets are more than mere eating places. In a traditional night market, people eat, shop, and play games at the same time. Taiwanese love night markets, and now the culture of the night market has become a distinctive and precious touristic experience for foreigners visiting Taiwan.
Grace, a Taiwanese in New York City, writes about a visit to Taiwan:
My friends were asking me what I was going to do when I got to Taiwan…knowing my family, I knew we were going to drop off our bags and head straight to the night markets.
However, once upon a time, the “night markets” were much less famous than the “morning markets”. Liang-Lu Han explains:
In the morning, people went to the temples to pray and then ate breakfast. This is the origin of the temple-front morning markets. The morning markets are close to temples, and the night markets are close to markets and main roads…The morning markets belong to the agriculture society, waking up at sunrise and sleeping at sunset. On the other hand, the night markets represent the industrial and commercial routine in the cities. People leave their land and hometowns for the factories and cities. Then they reward themselves with food and consumption in the evening in the streets.
Night markets keep evolving alongside with the Taiwanese society. A Japanese traveler was amazed by the efficiency of the vendor in the night market:
I stared rapt as they prepared food with what could only be God's hands, and the waiting time passed quickly. There were 20 people ahead of me and can you believe I only stood in line for 10 minutes? When I got my ticket from the machine and counted the number of people ahead of me, I thought “gosh!”. There was no reason to worry, though!
While every Taiwanese loves night markets, the idea of a good night market differs and can be conflicting. Recently, the Tourism Bureau held a nationwide night market competition. According to the event spokeswoman:
The competition aims to select (the night markets) that are the cleanest, the most friendly to foreign visitors, the most interesting, the easiest to stroll through and the richest in culinary diversity.
On the other hand, some people prefer to preserve local culture and do not agree with the evaluation based on these “international standards”. Chensumi says:
Inviting these famous “gourmets” to evaluate night markets is similar to holding a literary award for bloggers. The reason why the night markets can survive is “living with the people but not with the gourmets”.
Why do we want to go to the night market? We want to squeeze around in the crowd. We want to eat fried chickens bigger than our face, which is high calorie and unhealthy. We want to eat the cheap and big and sizzling steak…In addition, we want to scoop the golden fishes and play pinball… Whenever you see the light bulbs turned on in that empty lot, you can dash out with your slippers and shorts to buy food, hang out and see those interesting old ladies shouting out loud the price of their products.
The fried chicken that is bigger than the girl's face. Photo courtesy of koadmonkee under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Chensumi’s article about night markets has attracted a lot of enthusiastic discussions in the comment section. Some people argued that it is not fair to ask the night markets to be as spacious and clean as a restaurant. Maggie said:
There is a empty lot close to my house. The landlord rented it to some vendors to hold a night market there last year. The place is very spacious, not crowded at all. As a result, the vendors all left in six months. Those gourmets will not understand the importance of “being crowded” in the night market for the vendors.
Shilin Night Market. Photo courtesy of koadmonkee under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Little babe said:
很多人都提到夜市有髒亂的情形 (人多的地方哪一個不髒?). 但是辦完夜市後呢?還是髒嗎,這就不盡然了吧! 大部分的攤販在營業結束後, 都會清理自己的營業範圍, 隔天去看並不會有髒亂的感覺.
Many people mention that nights markets are dirty and messy (is it possible to keep a crowded place clean?). Nevertheless, after the night markets are closed, will the place remain dirty? No! Most vendors will clean their own lots after they finish the business. The place will not be dirty or messy on the next day.
Stanley talked about how the night market in his hometown changed after becoming a “tourist night market”:
夜市變成了”觀光夜市”後, 雖然這樣可以帶動經濟繁榮, 但相對的在地的味道就會少了很多, 在地人對那個夜市永遠就只能變成回憶了.
Since the night market became a “tourist night market”, it has brought more business and cash, but the local flavor vanished. For the locals, the original night market has turned into memories.
Old pinball game. Photo courtesy of chia ying Yang under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
What will the future night markets look like? Miesiao said:
The intervention of the government is driven by the vendors in the night markets, who want to have more business …The goal is to attract foreign tourists. We may need to diversify our tactics in touristic development instead of being afraid of the trend.
For example, Joe has pointed out that we should discover the distinctive character for each night market:
I enjoy delicacies in night markets, but I do not like them to be the same. People, landscapes and even dogs have different outlooks, how would the night markets be the same? If we study them carefully, we will be able to find out each of their distinctive characters.
Recently, to catch the wave of smart phones, the most famous night market in Taiwan (especially amongst foreigners), the Shilin night market, has an iPhone app now.
Writer's note: Thank you to Portnoy for providing some of the information and Tomomi for helping with the Japanese translation.