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Taiwan: The Allure of Night Markets

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:

早晨拜廟之餘再祭祭自己的五臟廟就成了廟口早市的起源。早市因廟口而起,但夜市則依菜市場和交通要道而生…早市的城市性格是農業社會的,日出而作、日落而息,但夜市卻代表了城市的工商業性格,離開土地、家園進入工廠、異鄉的人們,在傍晚之後在都市的街道尋找食物、商品的刺激與慰藉。

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:

神業としか思えない包み作業に見入っていると、待ち時間もあっという間サ~。
20人待ちぐらいで10分待ったかな?
番号札もらってあまりの待ち人数に「ゲェッッッ!?」と思っても、次々と出来上がるので心配ご無用。

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:

找美食菁英來評比夜市,就好像辦部落格文學獎一樣,夜市之所以存在的理由,就是「不需要被美食菁英指指點點就可以靠底層生命力活得好好的」。

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”.

逛夜市的目的是什麼?就是去擠啊,去吃熱量很高又不健康的比臉孔大的炸雞排啊,吃廉價的豪邁的又會滋滋響的鐵板牛排啊…何況還可以撈金魚打彈珠…你永遠記得禮拜幾晚上,那片空地突然亮起燈泡,穿著拖鞋短褲就可以去吃東西,去玩耍,去看有趣的歐吉桑拍賣喊價。

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.

ChickenThe 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:

我家附近的某塊空地,去年租給許多小攤過來擺夜市,非常空曠,完全不會人擠人,所以不到六個月就全部撤攤。該位美食專家應該很難體會到「人擠人」對於商家的重要性吧。

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 MarketShilin 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.

Pinball gameOld 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:

政府介入其實是因為那些夜市店家也很愛期待政府做事,有商機…但這些觀光化的目標應該還是國外旅客,或許可以想更多觀光化的手段,而是不是害怕觀光化…

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:

我喜歡夜市的美食,卻也討厭各地的夜市都長得一個樣子。我覺得,人有不同的樣子,風景有不同的樣子,狗狗有不同的樣子,怎麼夜市卻都同一個樣子呢?其實,更仔細的品味,也許我會發現每一個夜市不同的樣子,不同的個性。

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.

6 comments

  • Preetam Rai

    Missing Taipei so much. Love the night markets. Such amazing atmosphere and food. I once tried 雞屁股 there.

  • Without a doubt, I think Taiwanese night markets are the best in Asia, but I think night markets are more for tourists than people actually living in that particular city. I am living in HK right now, and I never go to the night markets in HK, unless I have friends visiting from overseas who want to go and “expereince” the culture of that city.

    I think when you’re tourist, you like the drink in the crowded atmosphere and have hundreds and hundreds of selections placed in front of you. People associate night markets with “cheap” and “bargain”, but I still think selling dogs in a night market is weird.

    • Actually Taiwanese people enjoy going to night markets a lot. There are many smaller night markets in towns and villages. I won’t say that those “tourism night markets” has lost the spirit, but just as Stanley said in this article, some local flavor is vanishing.

      I completely agree with you that it is weird and so wrong to sell dogs and rabbits and cats in a night market. We have laws to forbid such trading behavior, but not enforced.

      • shilin nite market is huge, and I’ve a local friend from Taiwan who took me around, and it’s an absolute maze! There was a stall selling fried mushroom, it was so yummy! The Taiwan night market is really famous for the beef bun? Anyhoo, every now and then, our department store in HK, Sogo, would do these food festivals from various different countries. There was a week on Taiwan and one of the stands was selling the beef bun, but definitely not as good as the ones I had in Taiwan. I think when authetic local street foods are moved to other countries, somehow, they lost their flavor and feel

  • One day I would like to see these markets live :)

  • I had a great time exploring night markets in Taipei!

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