Scooters & Shopping in Taipei…! 15


There are a few things that always tell me I’m back in Asia: that wall of humid heat which smacks you in the face like a warm, wet hand;  the general hubub of noise that fills the air beneath the jungle of flashing neon signs; the tantalising aromas of exotic dishes wafting out from street hawker stands and restaurant doorways, and the sheer number of bodies crowding the streets – what the Chinese call “people mountain, people sea”…this is definitely not the place for those with “personal space” or claustrophobia issues! ;-)

Oh, don’t get me wrong – Chinese people do value & respect personal space. But the Asian concept of personal space can be very different from a Western one. You might think that’s an odd thing to say after just hearing me rant – a few posts ago – about the Asian aversion to hugging, etc. – but that’s a bit different. That’s to do with physical demonstration of affection. Standing really close to someone in a queue or a lift is not the same as hugging & kissing someone in public – although funnily enough (to us!) most Westerners find they’re more comfortable doing the latter than the former! ;-)

In Taipei, (the capital of Taiwan) it isn’t just the number of people you have to contend with but also the number of motorbikes & scooters! Swerving round corners, darting through traffic, roaring past you in small alleyways… (and yes, also polluting the air with fumes…)

A typical sight at Taipei road intersections…waiting for the green light!

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…or neatly lining the roadsides in rows, like an army of silent drones…

People love them for their convenience, low petrol consumption, their ability to squeeze down narrow alleyways, their easy parking and their speed weaving through traffic jams – you often see whole families perched haphazardly on the back of one scooter. Even Taiwanese dogs have learnt to get around on 2 wheels! :P

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The other thing about Asian cities is the plethora of shops spilling out of every street corner, subway tunnel, train station, back alley, memorial park, temple, doghouse, toilet…(ok, I’m exaggerating a bit but you get my drift – they can find a way to squeeze a shop in just about anywhere) – all to cater to that great Asian obsession: Shopping.

You’re probably thinking, “What’s the big deal? Everyone goes shopping.” Nuh-uh. Not like this. We’re not talking about shopping as an occasional leisure activity – oh no. Shopping in Asia is practically a religion and is practised with the fervour of an Olympic sport. And my mother is a multiple Gold Medalist.

I don’t know about you but I’m a bit of a “mood shopper” – in that I have to be in the right mood to feel like shopping. Otherwise, I can walk past racks of beautiful clothing and shoes with barely a flicker of interest. My mother, on the other hand, would probably stop her hearse and climb out of her coffin if she passed a shop with the letters ‘S-A-L-E’, on the way to her own funeral.

Her appetite for shopping is insatiable and her ability to get a discount legendary. Watching her negotiate, with a purse and a smile, is like watching a skilled predator at work. I wish I had even a quarter of her bargaining skills but – like a typical “banana” – I carry too much Western awkwardness and embarrassment about bargaining to ever do more than hesitantly ask if there might be the possibility of a discount…perhaps…please? They see me coming a mile away and give me the same treatment that all naïve Westerners deserve, ( ie. they fleece me ). ;-) Any time I’ve been let out to wander the shops of Taipei on my own results in my mother inspecting my purchases upon my return, glowering and saying incredulously, “You paid what??”

Of course, anyone who has been to Taiwan knows that often the best buys are not found in the swanky department stores and shopping malls but right on the side of the street. Known as “Lu Bian Tan“, these are little temporary “shops” that spring up along the roadside, especially in the evenings. After all the official department stores have shut their doors, hard-core shoppers can get another couple of hours in patrolling the little blankets laid out on the sides of the pavements, selling everything from shoes to kitchen knives, ballgowns to home-made rice buns…

Setting up shop on the side of the street is officially illegal and most “shop keepers” have their wares laid out on blankets, so that they can easily grab the corners to bundle up their goods and make a quick getaway if a policeman is sighted. But to be honest, this has been going on for so long and is so much part of the everyday culture of Taiwan that most policemen turn a blind eye (and probably have a browse themselves when they go off-duty! ;-) )

I love Lu Bian Tan. Everything is CHEAP, the variety is enormous and I’ve gotten some pretty amazing things – things that people have admired and asked me where I got it from, only to be disappointed when I explain that it’s one-of-a-kind and not available in stores.

Here’s a dress I got a couple of years ago when out roaming the streets with my mother late at night…and everyone who has seen me wear it thinks it’s from some expensive, designer store! ;-)

It isn’t just the goods on offer that makes shopping in Taiwan so amazing – it’s the service too. Asia is renowned for its service culture – and Taiwan, with its heavy Japanese influence from 50 years of colonization, excels at “(thoughtful) service with a (beaming) smile”

They really fall over backwards to make things easy for you. If they don’t stock your size or preferred colour, no problem – they’ll find it from another branch in the country and courier the items over for you the next day, free of charge. Trousers too long? Dress too big? No problem, many stores come with an in-house tailor who will do alterations on the spot, again free of charge.

As for discounts…I laugh when I walk around Western shopping malls making a song & dance about “20% off”. That wouldn’t even get you in the door in Taiwan. When serious sales start here, we’re talking 50% off or sometimes even more. My mother would consider anything less an insult. And if there really are no official promotions running, most shop girls will use their employees card to at least get you a 5% or 10% discount, if you ask nicely. You should never have to pay full price, if you “know the ropes”! ;-)

Admittedly, sometimes the “service”  in Asia can come across a bit overwhelming to those used to the Western style of shopping.

I used to be terrified of walking into a clothes shop in Taiwan because you could never say “I’m just browsing” to a bored shop assistant who’s more interested in their next coffee break than in helping you (a common scenario in the West)….

Oh no. You would be instantly accosted by a beaming shop girl the minute you stepped in the door and followed around the store, inundated with suggestions of what to try and what to buy. Some shop girls could be downright aggressive and if you dared try something on and not buy it, they would act like you’d killed their first-born child. It used to really put me off.

But I’m happy to say that in recent years, Taiwan has changed a lot in this respect – perhaps it is due to increasing Westernisation (although Taiwan remains one of the least Westernised countries in Asia: it is modern and cosmopolitan but not “Westernised” the way Singapore or even Hong Kong is) - or perhaps it is simply the change in attitudes with the younger generation but you can usually walk into most stores now and be left alone to browse if you wish. When you do need help, you will still get that wonderful service.

Of course, there’s a downside to all this awesome shopping…how on earth am I going to carry everything home without paying excess baggage?? ;-)

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Meanwhile back at the hospital…

My mother’s continuing to make great progress with her recovery (to be honest, I think the hardest thing about being in hospital for her is not being able to SHOP! ;-) ) but to stop myself writing HUGE, long posts again, I’ll give you all a proper update in the next post!

ps. Unlike some other parts of Asia (eg. Singapore), Taiwan does have 4 seasons so it doesn’t always have to feel like you’re stepping into a sauna. In fact, the northern parts of the island (like the capital, Taipei) can get distinctly chilly in winter, with temperatures dropping down to 2°C (35° F) and snow up in the mountains. So the best times to visit are Spring & Autumn and avoid the hot, humid summer months of Jul/Aug if you can! :P


I'd love to hear your thoughts! (Don't worry if your comment disappears - probably gone in Spam but I'll fish it out!)

15 thoughts on “Scooters & Shopping in Taipei…!

  • Anais

    We are so glad to hear that Ma-ma is doing good!
    I used to be an incredible shopper, especially when i landed in the UK where the clothes are sooo cheap compared to France. These skills came in very handy when i decided to be more sustainable, now 100% of my shopping happens in charity shops, and i really developed an “eye” that can spot a cute top from miles!
    Taiwan looks amazing and your posts really made me travel!
    Have fun!

    • Hsin-Yi

      Oh Anais – you make me ashamed coz I don’t really shop sustainably at all. Well, I try to for everyday groceries, like recycled toilet paper and free range and things like that – but I’m not so good when it comes to shopping for things like clothes & shoes (although I refuse to wear certain things, of course, like fur & ivory)…but when I was a student at university, I used to LOVE shopping in charity shops and bought a lot of my favourite clothes 2nd hand. I found it much easier to get good things second-hand and more enjoyable browsing charity shops when I lived in the UK – not so much now that we’re in Australia/NZ…but maybe I just haven’t found the right shops. It would help if we could actually settle in one place!! :P

  • sara

    Well, anyone who has been to NYC knows that the best deals are found on the streets in Chinatown! Now, I know where the tradition came from.

    Love the dog on the scooter. That’s quite the trick.

    I’m with your mom~ I wont buy anything unless it is on sale:) It is so much more satisfying to buy when you know you got a deal.

  • Nicoletta

    Glad to hear about your Mom.
    I do have the same problem with some of the shops in Italy where the shop assistants act very similarly to the ones you described, or they look you upside down to make you feel like an idiot that cannot afford what you are looking at, when you would simply have the time if you really need what you are looking at and if it really fits you… I found that they will tell you that anything suits you, some of course are good at their job and their advice can be pretty useful, but it is pretty clear that in some cases they are paid in percentage of what they sell…
    Ciao Nicoletta

    • Hsin-Yi

      Oh yes, I’m sure some of the shop girls in Taiwan are “on commission” too, which is why they’re so eager to help and keen to make a sale! ;-) But some of it is genuine good service culture, I think.

      Gosh, I didn’t realise that the shop keepers in Italy would be so snobbish! That sounds awful. I would hate to shope in a place like that. It reminds me of Dubai, which is so status & image-conscious and the shop keepers there REALLY look you up & down when you enter a shop, before they decide whether they can be bothered to serve you. They check out your watch, your bag, your jewelley, whether you’re wearing designer labels…it’s so shallow & I hate it, especially after living in NZ & Australia where everyone is treated equally (well, for the most part) and even millionaires dress down and wear jeans and mingle with “common people” in cafes and get treated the same. I think that’s a much better way society to live in – not the disgusting attitudes they have in Dubai. It’s one thing I definitely don’t miss about life there!!

  • daisydog

    We are so glad to have found you here since Honeys blog went missing for a while. I love reading all about your adventures and views on the world, moving, friendship, hair! And everything in between. YOu are a talented writer and look forward to more adventures!!

  • Melanie

    Oooohhh, just reading this post makes me twitchy! “Crowds and traffic and shopping, OH MY!” “Crowds and traffic and shopping, OH MY!!”

    You already know about my personal space issues and they include being in crowds as well as being touched. I’ve seen street shots of places like Hong Kong, or Tokyo or even New York and thought there’s now way in heck I’d want to be there! There’s a reason I live out in the middle of nowhere :-). I can squash my dislike of crowds if I have too — at a theme park, for instance — but I’ll figure out any way I can to avoid really bad crowds.

    I wouldn’t stand a chance shopping with your mother. I couldn’t keep up with her, let alone touch her in bargaining. I shop when I absolutely HAVE to or, rarely, when I want to, but I have no patience for sales racks and I DO NOT want any shop assistants bothering me. It’s very interesting about the pricing structure in Taiwan…. If no one is ever expected to pay full price, then it makes the cynic in me think that the posted prices must be ridiculously marked up. ‘Cause I can’t believe a shop-keeper would be willing to always lose 30-50% on a sale. That just doesn’t make much business sense…..

    There aren’t many places to really “strike a bargain” in the U.S., other than maybe a farmer’s market, rummage sale and the like, so we don’t get any practice. The only time we’ve even sort of tried it was on a trip to Egypt 10 years ago….. We “negotiated” with a felucca-owner for what wound up being a four hour sail around the cataract at Aswan and a trip to Elephantine Island. They’d started at 80 Egyptian Pounds and we settled for 60EP — the ridiculous equivalent of less than $20US for a really great afternoon. We thought we’d gotten a great deal while not totally taking advantage of the sailors. But the next day we ran into a British couple who said they’d taken the exact same trip — for 20EP!!!! We couldn’t decide if the Brits were just cheapskates or if we’d been totally rooked! ;-)

    P.S. — That dress really is lovely. Hard to believe you basically bought it on a road side ;-)

    P.P.S. — So, when you gonna teach Honey to balance on a scooter? ;-)

    • Hsin-Yi

      Melanie – I have to confess – I share your dislike of crowds but I think I put that on hold when I’m “away” on holiday or travel – you know, like the way you’d put up with things or do things out of character when you’re travelling, which you would never tolerate at home! ;-)

      Besides, I sort of expect the crowds & noise when I go back to Asia – it would seem too weird and “un-Asian” without it. It just defines that culture. In fact, we Chinese even have a word for it: “renao” – and if a place (eg, restaurant) isn’t raucous & busy & bustling, we will shun it. All that noise & people is a sign of a “good time”! ;-)

      Oh, about the sales – sorry, I didn’t word that very well (have gone back and corrected it in the post now) – I meant, nobody should have to pay full price if you’re “in the know” and have the right skills! ;-) A lot of dozy shoppers (esp tourists & Westerners!) do still pay full price – hee! hee! And actually, there ARE certain exclusive shops which insist on no discount. But they are rare. In general, there is more of a bargaining culture in Asia than there is in the West. It’s sort of expected and how shops compete with each other. Even if my mother can’t get money off the item, she’ll “bargain” for other extras – like asking them to throw in free samples of other products or include a small item for free or stuff like that. She always gets “something extra”! ;-)

      As for Honey on a scooter…as soon as they make one big enough for her! ;-)

  • Nightshade

    Hello,

    I just found your blog about visiting your mother in Taiwan through Honey’s site and really enjoy reading it! I’m not that familiar with the way of life in Asia – and definately not with Taiwan – and it’s really nice to read about it from your point of view.
    Hope your mother recovers quickly!

    Greets from Belgium,
    Karolien
    and a huge paw from our Great Dane, Killian!

  • Paul Thompson

    Hi
    Hsin-Yi
    Wow first I cant belive you can cram that meany Scooters in one street lol Second Im glad that your having a good time with your Mother I know how importent family is and Third My mom saw the Pics of the shoes SHE WOULD GO COMPLEATLY BROK!!! In one day lol like most people my mothers age women that is she cant pass up a good pair of shose or a grate purse ME JUST DROP ME INTO THE ELECTRONICS MARKET AND LOOK OUT LOL . I Sent a Post to Honeys Blog to her and paul and Museli I hope Pauls Studes are going well I know how it is to be so close to compleating something that would take so long to get to the end of any way BIG HUGS TO YOU AND YOUR MOM AND SOPHIE AND CHOLIE SAY HI LOL

    • Hsin-Yi

      Ha! Ha! Paul – I think if your mother lived in Taiwan, she would really be struggling since shoe shopping there is AMAZING! I’m not really a huge shoe shopper and I still think I would buy a new pair every week if I lived there…there is just so much temptation on offer!! :D And yeah, you would love the gadgets & techno stuff – which tends to be so much cheaper in Asia too!

  • Roo

    Haroooo Hsin-Yi!
    I’ve missed ya! So glad to hear your Mom is recovering nicely from her surgery :) I’m sure it helps her recover more quickly to have you by her side!

    Wow! There sure are a lot of peeps there! Mom doesn’t do well in crowds. Might be because she’s short and tends to get stepped on or that she grew up in the country and prefers lots of space ;)
    Mom does luv to bargain though. Kind of a game to her. Happy bantering she calls it. Fun for all parties if you keep the insults out of the mix ;) The little shops in Taiwan remind her of the Bazaar inside the Old City of Jerusalem. The bargaining there involved chatting and having wonderful tea with the shopkeeps before talking about items. Quite fun!

    Mom and I so enjoy reading your stories. They always make us smile :D

    Waggin at ya,
    Roo