Ernie goes back to Taipei (Aug 2019)

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I’ve lived in Hong Kong now for over ten years, but my family has never felt so far away since last fall. A combination of semi-regular trips home and my parents’ own annual trips to Hong Kong meant we saw each other enough up to that point (though my family might beg to differ), and the guilt of the far-from-home son never really materialised in me. That all changed once we had Miles. All of a sudden I was acutely aware of the distance between my parents and their only/first grandchild, all the time they wouldn’t be able to spend with him and bond with him and love on him. My parents have always been supportive of my decision to move abroad, and they haven’t said anything about wanting us to move closer to them (nor do we have imminent plans to), but I’ve tried to get them as much face time with Miles as possible, which, yes, involves a lot of FaceTime.

This brings us to about a month ago, when my parents arrived in Hong Kong after retiring from their long-time careers in the Canadian healthcare and insurance industries. With all of their usual meet-ups, dinners, and siu yeh gatherings with friends and family, we began planning a separate getaway to Taipei with us and my parents so they’d at least get a few uninterrupted days together with Miles. The decision to go to Taiwan was not a particularly inspired one, but it ticked a few boxes for us: family-friendly environment, slower pace of city life, great food, lots of play options for Miles, and the ability to speak the local language (at least for Ashley and my mom). Ashley and I had been to Taipei a few times already, not to mention Ashley spent the first seven years of her life there, but my parents hadn’t been since the 1970s so I thought it’d be fun for them to go back as well.

You won’t find many recommendations in this post about what to do in Taipei. I’ll talk about food and a bit on some of my favourite street and city shots, but this trip was mostly about family. One of my little-big fears was that Miles wouldn’t recognise or be comfortable with my parents, even with weekly FaceTime sessions, but the little guy took to them almost right away. Watching his face light up and his pudgy arms reach out for them was heart-melting, and seeing their reactions was unexpectedly emotional for me as well. Both my mom and my dad are sixth out of seven kids so most of my cousins are older than me, meaning I had no idea how they would be around babies. I have really vague memories of how my mom was with my younger sister when she was a baby, but almost nothing with my stereotypical gruff Asian dad, and it was fun for me to see Miles just completely break that down with his sweet smile. I was really hoping this trip would give them a chance to just be grandparents and grandchild together, and I think we did pretty good.

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Okay let’s do this food thing. Taipei is one of the eating capitals of the world, and though I personally rate Singapore, Hanoi, and Tokyo higher, there’s plenty to get excited about in the thousands of hot kitchens and cramped food stalls across the city. One thing Ashley and I couldn’t do on this trip was eat at any of Taipei’s famous night markets due to Miles’ early bed time, but we’ve made the trip across the Taiwan Strait enough times before to be mostly okay with missing out. To compensate in a very small way, I did go out every night to make a Seven Eleven run or to pick up a snack at the local fried chicken hole-in-the-wall. Night markets aside though, I think we managed to check off almost everything on our food list.

The first dish I think of when it comes to Taiwanese food is beef noodles, or 牛肉麺. I have a great love and affection for soup noodle dishes, be it Hong Kong wonton mein, Northern Chinese dandan mein, Japanese ramen, Vietnamese pho, or Southeast Asian laksa, and Taiwanese beef noodles is right up there with the best of them. The combination of juicy braised beef, chewy noodles made perfect for slurping, and a flavourful, gently spicy broth really gets me in a place deep down, and I find myself craving even mediocre beef noodles when in Hong Kong, the idea of it is so strong in me. In Taipei we had the beef noodles from 永康牛肉麺館, or Yongkang Beef Noodles, just a short walk from our hotel. It’s one of the more well-known beef noodle joints in the city, having been around since 1963, and while there are surely other places now that are just as, if not more, well-regarded, the noodles here are still top rate. We also ordered the 粉蒸排骨, or steamed rice flour with spare ribs, and that was pretty dang tasty as well, before washing it all down with my all-time favourite Taiwanese beverage, Apple Sidra.

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If 牛肉麺 is the prototypical noodle dish in my imagining of Taiwan, then braised pork rice, or 魯肉飯, fills that role on the rice side of things. It’s a simple meal – a generous helping of rice, a layer of glistening braised pork, and, at 金峰魯肉飯, or Jinfeng Lu Rou Fan Eatery, a slice of bitter melon to cut through the oily savouriness of the meat and the rice. If you do an online search for 魯肉飯 in TaipeiJinfeng is going to pop up as one of the top results, and the lunchtime queue when we arrived confirmed its notoriety. I’d say overall it was pretty good, though the rice to meat ratio was a little heavy on the rice for me. As a side note, both Yongkang Beef Noodles and Jinfeng are very local establishments with pretty simple chair and table setups, and neither had high chairs available for Miles – and I don’t think we expected them to either. The staff were very friendly and accommodating though, setting aside tables that were out of the way and could fit a stroller without being too much in the way of the rest of the restaurant. When I think about the child-friendliness or family-friendliness of Taiwan, it’s this sort of attitude towards kids that is a big part of it, and I don’t necessarily really take anything away from these places for not having baby-specific arrangements.

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I suppose you could have beef noodles or braised pork rice first thing in the morning, but then you’d be missing out on one of the all-time underrated comfort breakfasts. A traditional Taiwanese breakfast is not a fancy meal, and there’s a lot of heavy carbs and fried things that just seem to form a brick in your stomach – that’s the test, by the way, of a good breakfast, whether it builds a house in your belly or not. 世界豆漿大王, which translates to World Soybean Milk Magnate, is a top breakfast spot in the city, serving up steaming hot bowls of sweet and savoury soy milk, delicious 飯糰 or sticky rice rolls, savoury 燒餅油條 to dip into the soy milk – the whole experience is transcendent. World Soybean’s reputation has taken a bit of a dip in recent years – our taxi driver actually recommended us to go to another local institution, 阜杭豆漿, or Fu Hang Soy Milk – but I think it still offers a pretty satisfactory Taiwanese breakfast experience.

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Mitsui Cuisine is part of the Mitsui brand of Japanese restaurants in Taipei. Founded in the 1990s when Japanese cuisine was still largely unrefined in Taiwan, the name has become synonymous with a certain idea of Japanese dining that perhaps other restaurants in the city have since taken to greater heights, but owes much to the groundwork laid by Mitsui. Ashley and I ate at another Mitsui joint the last time were in Taipei, the Addiction Aquatic Development, and on our last night in town we made a game-time decision to get dinner at Mitsui Cuisine. We each got one of the set dinners and I’d say about 90% of it was top notch, with the sashimi platter being the clear highlight. There was also a lovely grilled fish that Miles could not get enough of, though as the night dragged on well past his bedtime the fish became more of an instrument of pacification than just merely food.

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Street Shots

I love the look of Taipei. It’s got a really lived-in vibe that combines the neighbourhood scenes of cities like Tokyo and Seoul with the ramshackle aesthetic of parts of Hong Kong’s Kowloon district. These photos reflect where we spent most of our time, in and around Yongkang Street and Dongmen Station and in the East District along Zhongxiao East Road. We also spent a morning at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall learning about the life of the former leader of Taiwan while trying to get Miles to take his morning nap. I think we got really fortunate with the weather while we were in town – summers in Taipei are going to be hot no matter what, but the forecasted week of showers never really materialised and I had a fun time walking down streets and taking photos of whatever caught my attention.

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Home Again

I think most people living in Hong Kong of a certain political persuasion feel at least a little bit of guilt any time they have to go abroad, whether for holiday or for work, given what’s been happening in the city over the last three-plus months. Back in June I wrote about the first week or so of the protests, hoping to capture what was happening on the ground from my perspective as a Western-raised and educated person born to a family of immigrant Hong Kongers. Since then, the protests have only intensified with several significant flash points that have become rallying cries for the anti-extradition crowd, and there appear to be no signs of backing down from either side.

I remember when the so-called Umbrella Revolution kicked off, when the first cans of teargas were launched into Hong Kong crowds back in 2014, and Ashley and I were on holiday thousands of miles away in Istanbul. Sitting in our hotel room night after night, torn between wanting to stay and enjoy this incredibly lovely city (Istanbul remains one of my all-time favourite cities in the world) and wanting to head back to Hong Kong, not with any specific action in mind but just desperate to do something – that feeling of helplessness was excruciating at times.

There were similar emotions this time around, though things have escalated way beyond the scale of 2014 and even events that happened in the first few weeks of the protest seem like they’re from a different time. At this stage, a wide swathe of the Hong Kong public has lost trust in the police, the operator of the city’s famously efficient subways, and the political processes foundational to the territory’s governance (though there wasn’t much trust in this in the first place), and when things have reached this point it’s hard to see a way out that will satisfy all parties.

As I looked down at the city spread out below on either side of Victoria Harbour on the flight back from Taipei, I held all of these worries and stresses, the worst case scenarios and the frightening implications, in one overflowing hand. In the other I held tightly onto my love of this city that I’ve called home for over ten years, this place of refuge that offered my mother’s family safety and freedom as they fled from the Communists in the 1950s, and this place of opportunity for my dad’s family as they built new lives after World War II. I don’t know how the city will move forward in the face of these protests, and I don’t know how I can move forward with this as an individual – all I know is I can’t let go of either.

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