48 Hours in Taipei

by Ilona Kauremszky
Special to the National Post - March 8th 2008

Taipei -- As Big Brother China viagrates on the upcoming Olympics, wayward child Taipei has full-throttled its way to becoming the capital of techno-chic, fusing the best of Eastern and Western styles. One quarter of the electorate is under the age of 30, and you’ll find the Gen-Y crowd everywhere, queuing outside all-night dance clubs, rocketing up the world’s tallest building (for now) or watching American films directed by Taiwanese mainstay Ang Lee on Asia’s largest movie screen. It’s as if the Taiwanese creative spirit has been let loose in a playhouse of modernity. Whatever it is, with only a weekend to spare, I was ready to step into the thick of Taipei in search of fashion food and fun.


Check-in: The Grand Hotel
This Grand Dame when it first opened catered as the exclusive retreat palace for The Generalissimo, Chang Kai Shek who used to schmooze politicians and world leaders. The landmark also was used in Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman.” (1, Chung Shan N.Rd.,Sec.4,Taipei www.grand-hotel.org)

With sugar levels plummeting, skip the hotel breakfast and head to bun heaven, Yungho Soybean Milk (132-138-Fuxing S Rd Sec 2). A traditionalist’s breakfast nosh on a bun washed down with soybean milk. ($1 Can). The whole deal is healthy, cheap and beats the line-ups at the nearby Starbucks.

The Avant-Lunch Shopping Fix (Zhongshan Station) An “exclusively women only” boutique department store, IDÉE (14 and 15 Nanjing West Road, www.idee.com.tw) has the idea. Since opening in 1995 a shopping diva receives that “customer first, supreme service” experience. Watch for Japanese brands like Tenshi no Tamago, and Mirai Tenshi popular for gift items and for clothing check out Calvin Klein, Agatha and Paris-based Clio Blue. For exclusive Taiwan designer labels its Little Egret and Stephane Dou.

Over at the Dragon Fly Gallery (11 Songkao Road www.dragonfly.com.tw), clients range from hotel CEOs, and jewellery boutiques to software mavericks who crave the simple elegance from this dynamic duo: Jennifer Lin and Jeff Shi. Think Harry Winston New York, Microsoft Taiwan and Stanley C. Yen, group president of The Landis Hotel & Resorts. A US graduate, Lin worked in television advertising while Shi once designed jewellery for Harry Winston in NY. Since opening in 1996, their stylish franchise of ultra funky designs is hotly sought after. My favourite items: a Philippi Giorgio glasses/pen case $850NT and an Idea International icon watch $3500NT.

12:30 pm Secret Lunch
MTV Asia singing sensation Jay Chou whose directorial debut in the film Secret was the inspiration for this funky resto is big on film props and self-framed portraits of the multi-talented star. His favourite grub: French and Italian hence the cuisine choice. Mr. J French-Italian Restaurant (www.mrj-tw.com, No. 43, Lane 308, Guangfu S Rd., Taipei). Check out the sautéed mushrooms with shrimp ($200NT) and the seafood soup ($150NT).

2pm – (Ximen Station) Old World Shopping meets New World fashionista
Troll the network of pedestrian zones of the Ximending district in the east end. Known for the vintage Red Theatre which now showcases spoken-word and vocal performances, Tattoo Street, and movie houses lining the cinema-lined Hanzhong St., the area oozes in youth power. Other big discoveries are the city’s bookstore district and the city’s oldest traditional market, Ximen market. Watch for crazy fashion fads a la Tokyo grunge chic and Star Trek hairdos that’ll send Amy Winehouse back to rehab. Who knows while here you might acquire some body art at Kevin’s Tattoo Shop (No. 129 Xining S Rd), a manicure (Cinderella Nail Art, No. 5, Lane 50, Sec. 2, Wuchang St.,) or a famous Taiwanese foot massage known for its reflexology and toxin cleansing benefits found at nearly every street corner in Taipei. Trend-setters hit Shock Value (1F, No. 1, Alley 8, Lane 90, Sec. 2, Hankou St), a hot spot for local label Taki and US brands like Stussy and Supreme.

Snack time
Time for a favourite national snack: ice dessert. Yang Ji’s Corn and Peanut Ice (No. 38-40, Sec. 2 Hankou St.) is open year-round for its traditional shaved ice dessert. (about $1-2Can).

4:30pm (Yuanshan station and bus)
Sit on Asia’s highest Ferris wheel perched atop the rooftop of the Miramar Entertainment Park (No. 20, Jingye 3rd Rd. http://www.miramar.com.tw/ and bask in the city’s sunset. ($5 CDN). Later hit the nine floors of this new-age shopping and entertainment complex that boast’s Asia’s largest Imax movie screen (http://www.miramarcinemas.com.tw/show.htm) showcasing feature films like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Tired of lugging shopping bags? Find the Five-Dime Driftwood House restaurant (No. 8 Lane 32, Neihu Rd. Sec. 1, http://www.five-dime.com.tw/html/homepage.htm) refreshing. Artist cum culinary maverick, Hsieh Li-Shiang obsesses about recycled material and driftwood. Her architectural style conjures a meeting of Dali and Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. The décor screams of driftwood nudes positioned around recycled railway tie banquettes. A southern belle (she hails from Tainan county), Hsieh touts her specialty haute Taiwanese cuisine served in Fred Flintstone-like bowls and plates. There are two set menus with 11 dishes $1200NT or $800NT per person so bring friends.

Apres-dinner scene
You can’t be ready for an early night yet. Billed as the “city that never sleeps,” Taipei locals work hard, play hard and are compulsive when it comes to all-night food stands and nightclubs. So head to the Living Room (Nanjing E Road, www.livingroomtaipei.com). An ex-New York saxophone player created this hippie-inspired meeting place. The idea is to hang and listen to nightly entertainment. No set menu, the place works fine on personal orders. Cover is $300 NT with guaranteed two drinks. Open daily 6:30pm -1am

Late PM
Before turning in for the night, order a night cap at the Grand Hotel’s legendary Sixties Club where old crooners and mature doyennes revive their lounge lizard acts.


Morning (Near YongChun MRT)
Enough with old landmarks, today you switch hotels to one of the newest. It’s time to Tango at the Tango Hotel (www.khotel.com.tw) in the tony Xinyi district (297, ZhongXiao East Road , Sec.5) centrally located for fun, food and fashion. Best described as an urban fantasy, the suites all come equipped with the newest toys (ie free Internet). Observe the five-speaker surround sound, European furniture, ozone disinfection air refresher and the handmade tea set with specialty Gao-Shang tea. Nightly booking starts from $6500NT.

Mid-morning shopping blitz
Wufenpu (MRT Houshanpi Station) Leave the station by Exit 1 and walk north on Jhongpo N. Rd. to the intersection of Jhongpo N. Rd. and Yongji Rd. The latest clothing market in Taipei, Wufenpu (www.wufenpu.com) is a “girls gone wild” shopping mecca. Cramped shops stuffed with clothes bins and packed racks emit an “other worldly” feel to these alleys of couture. This fashion incubator seems ahead of the next trend and attracts designers and celebrities. It’s best compared to Zara’s on Boxing Day with the crowds of discount mavens seeking the best deals. The garment shops are void of dressing rooms and mirrors, giving “ready to wear” new meaning. Sleuth for unique eye-catching designs from Tokyo to Hong Kong at rock bottom prices. Prices range from NT$100 to NT$1000 and prepare to bargain.

Next shop stop:
The Eslite Bookstore flagship, (245 Dunhua South Road, Section 1; www.eslitebooks.com) Another club scene but with bigger brighter lights, this book shop is open 24/7 and is worth a stop just to view the hordes of booklovers (mostly under 30) scouring the magazine racks and aisles. No wonder. Reading is another favourite national pastime. Taiwanese love their books so much they boast the world’s first 24/7 bookstore and to boot the city is home to Asia’s largest book fair. Popular titles: chick lit (Sophie Kinsella), sex books (Illustrated 101 Sex Toys and Kama Sutra), and “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

Din Tai Fung (No. 218, Alley 216, Zhongxiao E. Rd. Sec. 4, www.dintaifung.com.tw). For cuisine beyond compare, hit “the” dumpling institution. Yang Chi-Hua, the famed dumpling master, has dumpling emporiums in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Los Angeles and his home turf of Taiwan. Choose from three Taipei locations. It’s best to get here early as the place really gets jammed. The dumplings are light, juicy and affordable. A hardy meal will cost about $NT300 or about $12.50

Taipei boasts the Beitou hot springs. For this stunning modernist retreat 30 minutes from downtown, head to misty Yangming Mountain and indulge in a hot bath treatment at Hsin Peitou’s Villa 32 (32 Zhongshan Rd, www.villa32.com). Hong Kong action star Michelle Yeoh and corporate brass soak in the mineral-rich outdoor baths of this ultra-luxe getaway hotel that made Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot Hotel list.

Late Afternoon: Taipei 101 Mall (45 Shifu Rd.www.taipei101mall.com.tw) Energized you return to the city jungle and ascend the world’s fastest elevator at Taipei 101 (NT$350) to scan the horizon on the 89th floor. Awesome! Now you’re ready to complete some last-minute shopping in the 101 mall, a cross between Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue with only haute couture and the world’s finest fashion houses. (Dior, Gucci, Prada and Versace, etc..). For a late afternoon cocktail, visit Mint, a funky martini bar that thrives at night, and is considered one of the “to be seen places” in town.

Around the corner a statue of Liberty repro defines the New York New York Shopping Centre (http://www.nyny.com.tw/) and offers a good diversion and a cheaper alternative to the 101 Mall.

PM: Shilin Night Market
For dinner try one of the wacky restos (the Embassy Restaurant 41 Tian Mu East Road, Shilin District or the Modern Toilet, No.184, Wunlin Rd., Shihlin District, www.moderntoilet.com.tw) Believe it or not the latter is a big craze and popular restaurant franchise. Impeccably clean where patrons sit on toilet seats and nosh from customized toilet bowls. Try modern toilet chicken curry 180NT, Korean Pork BBQ 190NT or fabulous ice shavings in vanilla or chocolate shaped like pooh! 40NT.

Shop til you drop a.k.a Shilin Night Market
Prepare yourself for sensory overload at Taipei’s most famous night market. Cruise the countless food stalls while battling a tsunami of endless patrons vying for cheap goods and street eats. Discount prices galore for clothing, shoes, accessories, toys and CDs – pretty much anything you can think of is sold here. Favourite street eats: fried spring onion pancakes at Guo Ji Fried Spring Onion Pancake (NT$17) and crispy “little roll wrapped in big roll” (NT$30).

Late PM: Luxy Time (201, ZhongXiao E. Rd., Sec.4)
Taiwan’s richest playboy Johnny Hwang’s pleasure dome is now the digs for this all-night dance club Luxy. Past partiers include the Black Eyed Peas who raved about the three-floored multi-themed venue during their last Asia tour. The hip-so hurt club managed by Alan Hsia who runs one of Taipei’s big PR companies, brags about his all-star team of DJs who jam beneath chandeliers, 10-foot ceilings, glass-topped bars surrounded by heavy drapes. Soul, funk, techno and hip hop shake down the house nightly.


photos: Stephen Smith

To Know:

To celebrate the Lunar New Year, shops drastically cut prices during February-March.

For avant-garde film-making and the best of Taipei cinema, Cinematheque Ontario has scheduled a collection of films from legendary Taiwanese director Edward Yang who died last year. Edward Yang’s Taipei Stories is a film retrospective of his early works including “A Brighter Summer Day,” considered the greatest of all Taiwanese films. March 7-16, 2008. www.cinemathequeontario.ca, 416-968-FILM/1-877-968-FILM

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