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Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Danshui: Taipei's Coney Island

Written by Erin Kuschner
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Danshui: Taipei's Coney Island, travel TaiwanIn the lively fishing village of Danshui (more commonly known as Tamsui to the locals) a lengthy boardwalk summons its strolling visitors to slow down a notch; to look left at Taiwan’s Danshui River, and right at the flashing arcade games lined up in blinking rows.  For the residents of Taipei a mere 40 minute ride on the metro can provide an escape from a city of over 2.5 million.  A bike path serves as a more scenic route, and was in fact the mode of transportation I chose to make my way from Taiwan’s capital to Danshui.


During the week, the small town’s residents haul their crafts and seafood to Taipei, hoping to make a decent profit. On weekends, however, the journey is made in reverse. Just as New York City has its Coney Island, Danshui thrives as a playground of games, sumptuous food, and a safe haven from the everyday grind of city life.


At the southern end of the boardwalk, a barrage of shouting voices can be heard through megaphones.  Each shop owner has one and uses it to their fullest advantage.  Yelling “Guaning, guaning (welcome)!” they persistently try to entice onlookers into restaurants, souvenir stores, and arcades.  The arcades are worlds within themselves, with Chinese versions of Pac-Man and Whack-a-Mole facing the sea and their constant swirl of lights flashing in sync with each arcade’s own theme song.


On weekends, an influx of school children flock to Danshui in groups; money in hand they weave among tourists, fishermen, and older couples, anxious to hand over NT$20 per game (at NT$30 to the US$).  Some take the opportunity to approach foreigners in order to practice their English; a few teenagers came up to my family and me with a small hand-held video camera.  “For our English class,” they explained pointing to the camera; and for five minutes we bantered back and forth about ages, our purpose in Danshui, and whether or not we had tried the three foot tall soft-serve ice cream (we had not).


Across from the stores and arcades lies the placid Danshui River which opens out into the Taiwan Strait just beyond the boardwalk’s end.  Small fishing boats and kayaks are neatly lined up perpendicular to the dock, where their owners stand at makeshift booths selling the day’s catch.  Danshui’s residents frequent the fishing boats as they would a local supermarket pointing to the various bins of sardines, eels, and soft crab to make sure they get the freshest catch of the day.



Some of the fishing stands serve up their produce in ready-to-eat snacks by frying seafood plucked straight from the net and selling it on a stick.  Chefs and busboys from across the boardwalk haggle with the fishermen before running back to their kitchens, hands carrying heavy bags that will soon be emptied over greasy woks and fed to hungry customers.  Watching the intricate system of life along the boardwalk, it is hard not to notice the river’s leading role in sustaining not only business, but also the cohesive relationships of Danshui.


Danshui: Taipei's Coney Island, travel Taiwan, marketBy taking a side street away from the river, I left the boardwalk and found myself in a tangle of small stores and suddenly, a fruit market.  A woman behind a long table of fruit gestured frantically to an array of colors: orange kumquats, yellow star fruit, white melons, and deep green gourd-like objects that looked edible…but I politely declined.


The scene is not as commercial as the one I witnessed by the river, and the megaphones have been conspicuously left behind.  However, It is far from calm.  Vendors pushing their wares compete with their neighbors for customers by yelling out prices and products. I saw small Buddha statues, wooden bracelets, and shells from the river’s beach in deep bins. There is classic street food, of course, which thickens the air with its greasy remnants.


One of Danshui’s most popular culinary items is fish balls – spheres of fish paste stuffed with meat and curry.  While I decided to pass on these odorous little snacks, I thoroughly enjoyed candied sweet potatoes picked out of a Styrofoam cup.  The wedges come in shades of purple, orange, and yellow; and remind me of the sugar-coated apples from my trick-or-treating days.


My favorite snack was a pyramid of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves.  Consumed most often during Chinese New Year; the sticky rice can either be a sweet, dessert-like treat, or a salty snack infused with meat.  The kind I tried was closer towards the latter, filled with greasy pork and piping hot.  Another adventurous delicacy is “squid on a stick”, the squid’s wild tentacles may not look the most appetizing but I tried a few fried in a light batter and found them to be a perfect salty snack, rich in butter and fresh in taste.

Between the vendors and shops, lie tucked-away temples where locals and tourists can light incense and pray to the various Buddha figures scattered around the area.


Entering a smaller temple, I first pass through a stone courtyard with a row of orange chairs – a more modern twist and mostly utilized by the elderly citizens of Danshui while they wait for their families to finish paying their respects.  Intricately carved columns surround the courtyard and tell ancient stories carved into pale green stone. I went straight to the main alter which was adorned with a red and gold theme and rows of solemn gold figures facing a bowl of burning incense.


Although I am not a practicing Buddhist, I decided to light one anyway; and with no one around I felt a sense of quietude amongst the sound of traffic and shoppers beyond the courtyard.  It is gems like these small temples that reflect the deeper history of Danshui away from its games and shouting salesmen.


On my way back to the bicycle rack, I saw a breach of the antiquity I had just experienced within the temple.  There, standing innocently across the road from Danshui’s metro station, was a Starbucks.  Perhaps this was a sign that Danshui was succumbing to the fate of a more recent Coney Island, with its demolition of old-school rides and plans for luxury condos.  Could Taipei’s weekend get away soon be taken over by corporate chains?


marketScanning the river and its teeming boardwalk, I answered myself with a confidant “no.”  The simplicity of Danshui is what people come to see.  Visitors seek to leave behind Taipei’s hectic urban jungle and enter a world where your lunch is caught in front of you and your inner child is released with a few old-fashioned games, and your belief in tradition confirmed with remnants of the past.  I climbed on my bicycle and peddled away with Danshui at my back, leaving behind shouts of “Guaning, guaning!” and the youthful clanging of arcade bells.

©Erin Kuschner

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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