This place is much, much classier than any of the places i visited south of here, though. Probably why i noticed the lanterns. It's not an open or tented space out on the street, it's an inside room with a front door and air conditioning and all that fancy stuff. It doesn't have plastic stools, it has wooden stools. Made out of real wood too, not plywood and laminate. I feel a bit out of place, but the crowd is still wearing flip-flops and smoking and shouting and pouring beer out of 40s which i guess is what makes it a bar and not a regular restaurant.
I went to the nearest night market and it was exactly like the "famous" one i wasn't impressed by in Kaohsiung. So fucking suburban. I mean, they have lots of funny looking meat and deep-fried everything, but it doesn't feel unique. Perhaps i am biased because i am trying to find vegan-ish things, but i still think my favorite night market in Taiwan is the one i went to out the east side of Kaohsiung (somewhere in Fengshan district) where i got stinky tofu and mushroom soup. I get the feeling that night markets as a tourist destination are overrated. Almost everything you can get at a night market you can also get at mom'n'pop restaurants during the day, and during the day there isn't a line. You just need to walk around a bit more, because mom'n'pop restaurants and daytime food stands are scattered around everywhere. I guess night markets appeal to people who want to go somewhere busy and popular. Tourists aside, that would also explain why there are so many teenagers.
And that was the the last sensible thing i wrote in my notebook. Here is my review of Zhongli: best bars since leaving Berlin. Because, deary me, i blacked out most of Tuesday night and Wednesday i spent curled up in a ball in my hotel room with the mother of all hangovers.
Let's see what i remember. After leaving the izakaya, i stumbled upon an expat bar. Unlike the one in Kaohsiung, it wasn't serving steak and chips and whatever garbage food expats inexplicably like to eat, it just had a bartender who spoke English and beer on a tap. I got mightily drunk.
One thing i learned from listening to the bartender speak to a friend of hers was that there are valley girls in Taiwan. The one Chinese phrase most people know is "ni hao", which is used for hello (literally it means "you good?"). What i noticed was that it can also be used the valley girl way of "like, hell-ooo". Interesting discovery. I need to learn a lot more Chinese before i can use it that way.
I chatted to a couple of drunken businessmen. One was from Zhongli and his colleague was up from Changhua, the local was showing his friend around town. He told me Kaohsiung was great - best bars in Taiwan. I can dig that. Then he lamented the salaries. This is a common complaint - that even companies in mainland China pay better than Taiwan. It is causing brain-drain. At the same time, local house prices have exploded, so right now it's actually cheaper to rent your entire life than it is to buy a house. This was my first serious chat about the economics of Taiwan, and i hope i can get a bit more out of people in the future. I love learning about politics from locals. Of course, a bias is that most working class locals in Taiwan don't speak English, so i am likely to only hear from the (upper) middle class.
I also "came out" to the bartender. She asked me about my left wrist tattoo, which although it's my most simple tattoo it has one of the most complex stories. It's based on the black triangle, which was the Nazi symbol they used in concentration camps to classify homeless, prostitutes, mentally ill, alcoholics and so on. The lesbian community adopted it at some point as their pride symbol. About 10 years ago i felt lesbian but conflicted. I'm an old-school trannie so i don't subscribe to that modern view that i was born a woman in a man's body, i will always be a woman, i always was a woman, bla bla bla. I believe i was born male, i grew up as a boy, i got a sex change, and now i am socially considered a woman. That gives me great insight into the minds of both men and women that people who are not trans will never have. But i don't really consider myself either a man or a woman, and that's totally fine. I think gender is stupid. Still, i am a lesbian because society perceives me as a woman and i am only really attracted to people who identify as women. That makes me feel like a broken lesbian because God knows i don't share the childhood history and oppression of natural born women. Hence the broken black triangle on my wrist. Which - by chance - looks a lot like the Adidas logo, the shoe brand i have worn exclusively for 15-20 years. So, bonus.
Anyway, i spewed out all of this to a complete stranger in a town full of Asian expats. Significant because although Taiwan is relatively gay-friendly, most other Asian countries absolutely are not. It's a testament to my level of comfort in the joint - and my drunkenness - that i let all of that out.
At some point i left the expat bar, and then things got very murky. I know i went to at least one local bar, because i have a drunk Facebook status update and a business card in my wallet to prove it. I also have a photo of the door of another bar i am not sure if i visited. I think i was pleased to leave the expat bar because they started playing nu-metal and showing the NBA finals and ... really? Really? I mean, i like basketball, but nu-metal? Could you be more tragically bro-merican? The local bar was playing Taiwanese pop, and some guys were playing darts, and they had cheap beer, and i drunk-texted at least until 3am... Something something something...
It was an epic, epic night. I woke up around noon the next day, completely slept through breakfast, yelled at room service for trying to come in, then eventually showered and pulled myself out of bed around 6pm. I bought a vegetarian "beef" noodle bowl from 7-11, and some seaweed rice crackers, and a banana, and ate it all, and then passed out again.
When i woke up today it was raining. The train to Taipei was a blur of suburbs and cities and the odd mountain popping out in between. No more rice paddies. Taipei itself i have to reserve judgement on. It's been pissing down, so i haven't gotten to walk around as much as i would normally do. I did case the whole neighborhood around my hotel. According to Wikivoyage it's the Taipei version of Harajuku, which i can't believe because i didn't see any gothic lolitas walking around. There are tons of chain stores, though - almost only chain stores - and hipper-than-hip bars and gamer cafés and manga billboards and graffiti and neon lights and hi-nrg music... Pretty much everything has translations in English, Korean and Japanese. There are (relatively) lots of white people. It's wildly more cosmopolitan than everywhere i have visited yet. Perhaps not more multicultural than Zhongli, but that was working class multicultural. This is a bunch of shining happy kids with lots of disposable cash and their finger on the pulse of everything happening in Tokyo and Seoul and Hong Kong. It feels a lot more "Azn" than everywhere i was before, which felt more... Chinese. Ironically, perhaps, given the south is reknowned for having their own Taiwanese identity whereas the north tend to support the idea that Taiwan is the "true" China who will one day reunite with the mainland "when" they dump Communism. To me Taipei so far feels more like what i imagine Japan to be like and not very Chinese at all. But, yanno, i've only visited one neighborhood and i've never been to Japan outside of a layover, so what do i know?
Moral of the story. Zhongli, i remember almost nothing of the city, but i am quite sure i had a brilliant time there. Taipei? If i can make it through the rain i am sure i will enjoy it, in the same way i "enjoyed" (not really) NYC. Expensive, clean, safe, largely boring. Almost certainly big enough that cool things happen despite the boring. I got 4 days to find out, and after that it's Hong Kong and on.