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Travel & Holiday

Food's good, pity about the environment

Popular food spot Shilin beset by gripes since Christmas reopening
The Straits Times - January 2, 2012
By: Lee Sook Hwai
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Food's good, pity about the environment The new Shilin market has poor ventilation and cramped seating. --PHOTO: VINCENT HUM

THE place is too cramped, too smoke-filled, and there is just not enough parking space.

Such complaints about Shilin Market are as thick as the smoke that visitors have had to endure since Taiwan's most famous food market reopened at its new basement home in Taipei on Dec 25.

Poor ventilation, overcrowding and traffic jams are not the only gripes. There is considerable dismay over the air-conditioned environment where the 50 or so food stalls have been neatly demarcated - many say the new setting does not have the feel of an 'authentic' night market.

Mr Vincent Hum, 41, who visited the market several evenings ago, said he was 'hit by a blast of smoke' as soon as he stepped in.

'Some stalls selling teppanyaki (Japanese-style hotplate fare) and oyster omelettes created a lot of smoke,' said the Chinese-Canadian, who has lived in Taipei for the past four years.

'Garbage on the floor, super-crowded aisles and poor ventilation seem to be a big problem. I can only imagine how uncomfortable it will get in summer.'

Those who swamped the market on Christmas Day complained about the limited seating - which forced them to sit back-to-back, shoulder-to-shoulder with other customers - the long queues for food and the shortage of parking space.

Many say they prefer the market's previous home - a two-storey building just across the road from the Jiantan subway station. There, the food stalls were on the ground level in a building similar to a hawker centre in Singapore.

'The new place feels like just another shopping mall food court,' one customer told local media.

Stallholders have some gripes of their own. For one thing, their stalls have shrunk by up to half, to between 6 sq m and 10 sq m each.

Ironically, Shilin Market's new home is actually its old - and original - one.

The market was born about a century ago, when hawkers clustered in front of a bustling Cixian temple on Jihe Road.

Over the years, as it grew, it took over the lanes surrounding the temple and the plaza in front, and the makeshift roadside stalls became the island's most famous nocturnal food market.

However, by 2002, Shilin had become so cramped that Taipei's municipal authorities, prompted by hygiene and environment concerns, decided to provide a new building to house the stalls.

The stalls were moved to the 'temporary' site that same year, but they stayed longer than expected because the project was delayed by the developer going bankrupt, design changes and other problems.

In the end, the municipal government decided on a four-storey design, with three of the floors being underground so as not to block views of the historical Cixian temple next door.

The new market has some 300 stalls. The ground floor houses those selling fresh produce, dry goods, souvenirs and clothes. Around 50 of the market's famous food stalls - with their oyster omelettes, cuttlefish broth, fried chicken cutlets, stinky beancurd, sausages and deep-fried buns - operate from the first basement, B1.

The other two floors, B2 and B3, are taken up by about 50 parking spaces.

Aware of the problems raised by customers and stallholders, the municipal government and the market's management committee have promised to improve the situation.

Measures include more ventilators, reopening the carpark at the old market just across the road and installing electronic counters to keep crowd numbers below 1,000.

Despite all the complaints, business has been sizzling and most stallholders are happy with the new premises.

Mrs Hsu Shu-cheng, who runs a braised-food stall with her husband, said the new location is better as it is much closer to the bustling shopping and food streets that make up the rest of the night market.

'The crowds converge in this area, so we don't have to worry about getting enough human traffic,' she said.

At the Hot Star fried chicken cutlet stall, one of Shilin's top draws, business has been booming. Since the reopening, it has made NT$25,000 (S$1,075) a day from the crispy snacks, sold at NT$55 a portion. Before, it earned NT$15,000.

The Hot Star chain runs numerous outlets throughout Taipei and Taichung. Manager Kuo Hsiao-yen credits the increase in business to curiosity about the new market.

'Other stalls also seem to be enjoying better business. Hopefully, the government and the market committee can do something about the ventilation, so customers will keep coming back,' she said.



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