Going Home Again on Zhongshan North Road
Lyricist Chung Yung-feng and publisher Emily Chuang find their memories intertwine as they discover the warmth and delicious flavors along Taipei’s Zhongshan North Road.
Going Home Again on Zhongshan North RoadBy Lucy Chao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 605 )
What glories can one street contain? Taipei’s Zhongshan North Road is a constant in the flow of time. Once the city’s main avenue and “Embassy Row” during the Japanese period and the seat of diplomatic power, lined by the embassies of the world’s great nations, it was also a major financial center dotted by the main branches of major banking institutions.
On one side stood Taipei’s first five-star hotel, the Ambassador, and the other the city’s first Western-style hospital, Mackay Memorial Hospital. Even the first office building for lease, the Chia Hsin Building, was located here.
Once upon a time, U.S. military personnel frequented R&R bars and shops selling imported goods. Saint Christopher’s Church became a place for foreign workers to gather and find solace together away from home. And a broad array of boutiques, hotels, and related establishments competed for business from overseas tourists.
Time has changed the landscape and stripped away some of the area’s shiny veneer, but its essence remains unchanged.
“As Zhongshan North Road has taken on new roles, culture and history have become her assets,” said Hsia Chu-chiu, former professor at the National Taiwan University Graduate Institute of Building & Planning, in a previous interview with CommonWealth.
Following along tree-lined Zhongshan North Road’s Section 2, the fashionable Zhongshan Market commercial zone is accompanied by cultural creative enclaves that have emerged in recent years, including Mogu Design, The Xiaoqi, and Lovely Taiwan, tucked away inconspicuously within side streets and alleyways. Topping it all off is a rich, vibrant food culture.
Everyday eats is the best way for to find the original soul of an old place with a new look.
Photo Credit: Kou-Tai Liu
CommonWealth invited two representatives of the arts and culture realms whose lives are inextricably tied to the Zhongshan District – musician and lyricist Chung Yung Feng, and Emily Publishing editor-in-chief Emily Chuang – for a tête-á- tête on their very personal take on the culinary landscape of Zhongshan North Road. Following are edited excerpts of their discussion:
CommonWealth (CW): The Zhongshan District has been inseparable from your life experience and has had a considerable impact on you. Do you have any stories about the area?
Chung: When I was studying at National Cheng Kung University, I used to come every couple of months to Sunrise Records on Zhongshan North Road, where I could find the most complete assortment of jazz, rock, folk, and avant-garde music. At that time, it had the most avant-garde perspective in the country’s music community.
I would take a month or two of savings, get on a bus north, and spend seven or eight hours among the stacks at Sunrise Records, mulling over the choices, and making careful selections before finally buying a few records to help expand my musical horizons.
Also notably, beginning in the 1980s, Sunrise Records began undertaking a very deliberate, ambitious plan to publish local Taiwanese composers. For instance, they enlisted conductor Chen Chiu-shen (陳秋盛) to conduct the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Japan performing composer Chiang Wen-yeh’s (江文也) Formosan Dance and Confucian Temple Rites. Mrs. Lin, the owner, had impeccable taste, courage and insight, and had a great influence on me.
Chuang: The Idée Fashion Store I often frequented was right there in the Zhongshan District, in two buildings that now house the Shinkong Mitsukoshi department store. Back then, Idée was largely targeted towards women, and it had a fashionable feel. Many Taiwanese designer brands were on the second floor, and even the bathroom was quite lovely.
What left the biggest impression on me was, where Linsen Park is now, behind the Regent Hotel, were all sorts of illegal structures; the area was filled with contradictions and tensions.
These days, having chosen the Zhongshan District for my office, I’ve noticed how thriving the cultural and creative industries are here. For instance, the establishments on Chifeng Street, where a lot of designers have moved into old buildings with their distinctive shops, is a real up-and-coming area now.
CW: The two of you are quite familiar with Zhongshan North Road, a region that features a prominent mixture of the old and the new. What observations or impressions do you have of the Zhongshan District over the past few years, and what changes have you observed?
Chung: The biggest change I’ve seen is that the Japanese district (off Zhongshan North Road Section One) has fallen by the wayside a bit.
Photo Credit: Kou-Tai Liu
The Taipei City Bureau of Cultural Affairs should compile better historical writings about this area, because ever since the Japanese period, this has been the place where Japanese and local Taiwanese business people discussed the most business. If we were to approach the topic of Taiwan’s ties and cultural connections to Japan in the post-colonial period, I think a good deal of it arose from out of the Japanese restaurants and bars in the alleyways of the Zhongshan District.
Chuang: Arts and culture have thrived here in recent years. Behind the Shinkong Mitsukoshi building is the Museum of Contemporary Art street project, and the Zhongshan MRT underground street with creative works from different concerns, schools, communities, and artists. I would say the only unfortunate thing is that now there are fewer bookstores than before.
Appreciating Aficionados’ Grace
CW: Apart from your personal experiences and the different ways Zhongshan North Road has or has not changed over the years, one big focus of our discussion is eating and drinking. It seems that the two of you have quite a few Taiwanese, Jiangsu-Zhejiang, and Japanese cuisine restaurants to recommend.
Chung: Apart from Japanese restaurants in the area like Shiruichi (汁一), I really like the Jiangsu and Zhejiang-style Chinese cuisine around there. For instance, the Tian-Chu restaurant has a great dining atmosphere, and is frequented by all sorts of clientele. I often go there on my own after work in the early evening to enjoy the experience of sitting next to others and soak in the family atmosphere, which seems to anchor me and make me feel less like a drifter.
I always order the cold-tossed cabbage hearts with dried tofu there, and the Peking duck if there are four or more in my party. Another unique thing about it that I love is that any member of the wait staff could have worked there for a decade or two, so that even the young people take an “old-fashioned” approach to service. By “Old-fashioned,” what I mean is “virtuoso.”
Chicken Town (雞家莊)
Chuang: Chicken Town is the same way. It feels like the wait staff has been there all their lives, which makes it feel like home.
Chung: I really enjoy that old-style, old-fashioned service. If you order too much food, they will tell you, “That’s enough. Don’t order any more.”
Chuang: Chicken Town’s specialty is Tri-Flavor Chicken, like different ways of preparing black-bone chicken, smoked chicken, and chopped cold boiled chicken. Their pudding, which is a traditional Taiwanese egg pudding, is also scrumptious, like your mother used to make when you were little.
Ming Fu Seafood Restaurant (明福台菜)
Chung: The food at the restaurants we’re mentioning here is reminiscent of the family feasts your mother makes only two or three times per year.
For instance, Ming Fu Seafood Restaurant, behind the Taiwan Cement building, from the interior to the exterior, from the waiters and waitresses to the boss, gives the impression of virtuosity, being the epitome of elegance.
Chuang: It’s like your family’s living room. There is no interior decoration to speak of, just a few tables. And their seafood is especially good.
Chung: Their Buddha Jumps Over the Wall is amazing. This dish usually has fairly thick broth, so taro is typically used. But Ming Fu doesn’t use taro, as they feel that sort of broth is not truly rich, and lacks layered depth.
Instead, they use seven or eight top-grade seafood ingredients, which could be said to be the height of extravagance. You might find it expensive, but you will surely be convinced it’s worth it as soon as you try it.
Chuang: When our publishing house takes people out, many go to Ming Fu. It is not uncommon to encounter people you know talking business there.
CW: There is a great deal of overlap and similarity in your respective culinary maps. What is your culinary philosophy, and which aspects do you pay particular attention to?
Chung: If your mother is a great cook, then, like me, you appreciate restaurants with a nostalgic orientation. Not only because their culinary skill is pure and expertly practiced, but their strong organizational skills allow them to whip up the best combinations with the ingredients on hand in just a short time, while still being very particular about details. I learned this sort of thing from my mother. So I am a great admirer of the old establishments like Ming Fu, their approach, use of ingredients, and execution.
Chuang: I am very particular about the taste of food, and I also care a lot about ambience. Take Fennel (茴香) for instance, which has a very Japanese atmosphere. I love little hole-in-the-wall places like it, which can only accommodate around 10 people, which makes it feel like you are going over to a friend’s house. There are a lot of places like that in Zhongshan District, where you get to know the owner well after a few visits, but they don’t get in the way of daily life.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman