(n.) street markets which operate at night and are generally dedicated to more leisurely strolling, shopping, and eating than more businesslike day markets; typically, open-air markets
Night Markets play a central role in Taiwanese nightlife and in general, Taiwanese culture. They are great locations for friends and families to enjoy a night out and consume delicious traditional street food.
It comes as no surprise that Taiwanese families miss these experiences when they are away from home. Therefore, many Taiwanese Night Markets have developed throughout the states, namely the 626 Night Market in Los Angeles. However, these night markets have become inherently westernized and commercialized as street vendors recognize this as a business opportunity. While I can’t knock the entrepreneurial hustle and I agree that these Night Markets provide aa homely environment, this trend of commodification and commercialization has been slowly taking over traditional night markets even in Taiwan. Many Taiwanese Night Markets are losing their traditional cultural roots because of their self-Orientalizing for commercial value, inherent culinary tourism and entanglement of food with neoliberalism.
A prime example of this cultural deterioration is the Shilin Night Market. This night market is resoundingly recognized as one of top night markets in Taipei due to its wide selection of food, games, and shopping. In fact, after a quick Google search, it consistently ranks within the Top 3 Night Markets in Taipei, sometimes even #1. When my non-Taiwanese friends visit, Shilin is always the Night Market they have heard the most about and want to visit. A fundamental reason for this is how Shilin has capitalized on being “THE” Taiwanese Night Market experience for Westerners and tourists. However, even though the Shilin Night Market is highly regarded as a Taiwanese experience, I believe it is self-Orientalizing for commercial value. It enhances its global identity by tracing transnational influences through foodscapes and culinary tourism (Lopez, 151).
Lucy Long describes culinary tourism as the kind of encounter in which people intentionally explore culinary systems that are not their own (Lopez, 151). Shilin portrays a dichotomous relationship of culinary tourism as it provides a wide selection of traditional food options where tourists can try various dishes ranging from stinky tofu to chicken gizzards. However, because of its popularity and appeal, many vendors know that a growing majority of their customers are tourists and capitalize on this opportunity to provide more “westernized”, palatable, and even strange dishes to attract customers. Clearly there are neoliberal motives behind many of these vendors as they are commodifying the idea and cultural value of their dishes beyond the simple transaction cost. This undermines the vendors who are trying to serve more traditional dishes to cater to the locals seeking a familiar taste or tourists seeking a new experience because when given the option, many tourists will stick to what is comfortable, detracting from true Taiwanese cuisine.
I’ve experienced this multiple times with my friends. When I give many options that I consider to be traditional and representative of Taiwanese cuisine like stinky tofu, they usually just stick to more familiar foods like corn dogs.
And one of the biggest attractions that the Shilin Night Market offers is the Penis Cake.
Clearly, these cakes have no cultural value but they appeal to mass media and mass culture because of the intersectionality of sexuality and food. For some reason, we find phallic objects amusing and the Shilin Night market exploits this for commercialization and marketing which detracts from the cultural experience of a Taiwanese Night Market.
But there is hope! The Fung Brothers, two Asian American YouTube content creators, shed light on this issue by exploring and highlighting a more traditional Taiwanese Night Market that hasn’t been influenced by culinary tourism nor succumbed to neoliberalism. In their YouTube video, EATING AT A SECRET NIGHT MARKET IN TAIWAN // Fung Bros World Tour, they visit the Yansan Night Market (延三夜市) . On their ride to the Night Market, their cab driver was even like, “Oh my god, you guys know where you’re going,” an exclamation that bolsters the cultural value of Yanshan. Throughout the video, the Fung Bros explain how the Yanshan Night Market truly captures the essence of a Night Market and caters towards the locals.
Rather than serving as a site of culinary tourism, it serves as a practical location for average working families to buy and enjoy their food. The vendors here are serving the grassroots culture as they have not altered their dishes to be more palatable for tourists nor have they devised any strange new concoctions to attract tourists (i.e. Penis Cakes). They run their stalls to provide for the local communities rather than trying to exploit the commodification of food. For example, their food guide Jean, explains how they are eating Taiwanese sausages the traditional way, plain and simple with garlic, rather than in hot dog form.
The food here has been prepared the same way for many years and serves as a great example of protecting Taiwan’s cultural integrity through food.
I know my friends will always want to visit the Shilin Night Market because of the experience that it provides. However, I am challenging myself and others who find themselves in similar situations to also bring our friends to experience more hidden and traditional places like the Yanshan Night Market.
Lopez, Lori Kido. 2016. “Asian American Food Blogging as Racial Branding.” In Global Asian American Popular Cultures, 151-164. New York: New York University Press.