In the emerging yuppie city of Zhubei I never expected to see a night market. As one of the stations stops for the coming high-speed rail high-ceilinged California eateries and wood-toned Japanese sushi spots line the wide built-for-car streets. There is none of the wreckage, or charm, of history, as in Hsinchu’s narrow arcade-lined streets. Brick colonial facades are covered over in huge signs there, but it is still a crotchety infrastructure, jammed with shoppers squeezing past rows of parked scooters, in and out of the motley arches. I saw the glow of lights above an open space and rode toward it with my ex-girlfriend Giselle.
Was this where everyone headed after their espresso shops closed? People shouldered past one another down gauntlet after gauntlet of stands, tables, and truck-beds-turned kitchens. There were ears of corn roasted on the truck bed with a secret sauce; there were large drink dispensers with salty-sweet plum juice; there were plastic cups with limes and chunks of watermelon ready for blending; there were roasted peanuts in a big wok and another full of devilish-looking roots; there were cases of chicken wings and legs on hooks, rotating before a flame; there were rolled crepes with sprouts, ground peanuts, pork floss and other goodies; there were potstickers, their thin skins showing the green of scallions inside. At that we paused. “That looks good,” she said. “Yeah,” I said, but I’m not really hungry.” “Maybe if we walk around 8 more times we will be ready.” We moved off. A fat little boy sucked on an oily sausage and Giselle patted his head. She laughed. “Over there is a guy selling sweet potato fritters with his own brand name: Bald-Headed Lin’s Fritters. He doesn’t seem to mind much,” she said as we peered at the man’s head, then his facial expression.
That corner of the market was mainly food, but next to the fritters was a table piled with socks and bras. There was a table stocked with hand-ground scythes, hoes, and hatchets. I hear tell 20 years ago Zhubei was all farmland. There must still be a few holdouts from the million dollar payouts of the real estate developers, to judge by this tool vendor. A table of cockroach-killing wafers in among food stalls threw us for a loop. We paused to taste a “salt water mushroom,” delicately deep-fried, and moved past a table of men’s boxers. “Oh, yes,” I said, “These are perfect!” “The uglier to you the better,” Giselle sneered. A huge red ant crouched, claws out menacingly, right on the crotch of one. Others featured collages of dragons, dice, and piles of gold coins, or kung-fu masters leaping and chopping.. I quickly picked out a droopy-eyed panda one for Rob, and one with kung fu masters for Scott. A rather enigmatic pair with 2 black ants holding up a huge old coin with a square hole in it, I bought for my self. Its inscription read, “The road is for people to go out on. steel is for ants to bring in money on.” on the back were what seemed to be various valuables – pearls, gems, rings – walking along on little ant-like legs. It was perfectly baffling; I had to have it.
Down at the other end of the field it was mostly games. One was an elaborate set up of bottles in rows interspersed with prizes – a trash can shaped like a fat bird, a bottle of laundry detergent, a stuffed picaccio. The further back, the higher up were the bottles and the bigger the prizes. People stood behind a low board barrier and tossed wooden rings, trying to loop them over the bottle necks. A little girl of 5 or so roamed the back rows collecting fallen rings.
Another vendor ran a row of pachinko machines, the Japanese game of steel balls jiggering down through rows of pins. If the ball went in a hole, lights would flash and more steel balls would clatter into the pan at the bottom. The player simply feeds the balls in and sits, entranced at the clack clack clack of the balls bouncing downward, at the red lights, at the triumphant hoots of the machine. In the middle of the vertical board (decorated gaudily with horn-playing clowns and such) was a small screen with 3 video wheels spinning. We saw a boy get 3 in a row. There was solemn music of congratulation; there was a cartoon dignitary on the screen applauding and saying, “Great job!”; the whole board flashed with the music; metal balls spewed out the bottom. Giselle clapped her hands excitedly, and the little boy was grinning.
A little further down were tiny pinball-like machines for kids, but without paddles. Kids of 3 or 5 sat and pulled back the lever and let it go, the silver ball arcing up and around, and pitter pattering through the pins and down. If it rolled across a little trigger with a red light, the machine announced it with a beep. One boy got all 4 red lights, and balls spat out at the bottom.
There were tables set up in squares for a bingo like game, except using mah-jong symbols. A woman moved about in the center with a mike headset, calling out the next symbol. People, mainly middle aged, sat quietly in the cacophony perusing their cards. They sat on plastic stools, gnawing an ear of corn or smoking, plastic cups and wood shish kebob skewers underfoot.
We passed lonely games with no players, water balloons hung on a board below little stuffed animals. An attendant stood with baskets of darts. “you could stick the thing you want to win,” I reasoned. “But they are stuffed animals,” she replied. And I could not argue. We came to a lively scene. People sat around 4 plywood tables in a U shape holding slips of paper with 5 numbers. The middle was piled with toys – huge fuzzy pigs, toy jeeps, and the like. A man inside the circle with a headset held a big wheel mounted on a pile, and moved from person to person. He acted as MC, and hectored the contestants, “OK, what number ya got there?”
“Uh, thir – thirty,” said the man.
“So, you was gonna start to say 30 and add a number if you hit 36, right??” he cracked, and people laughed. He spun the wheel, marked by numbers like a roulette wheel, and stood back. The man flung his dart. It slowed. The MC looked. “Oh, very close!” he said, “If you’d’a just picked 42,” and pulled out the dart and handed it to the next man. Even though plenty of women sat in the glare of the lights, almost all the ones throwing were men. One could say men grew up throwing things more, but could one really say men throw more luckily, from a distance of 4 feet, at a spinning wheel? There is something about such games – half shows, performances, with banter from a host, with goofy prizes, that draws couples. Are such games a play version of the typical married relationship? Woman wishes for a fuzzy turtle stuffed with cotton; man sets out to win it for her with his (now puny) spear. In any case, what person, in solitude, would pine for a lumpy spider man or an action figure on a motorcycle? It can only be under the shared madness of a relationship that spiderman takes on that mysterious aura called “fun” which turns absurd trifles into pleasures. It could be that it is this same acquisitive madness which drives married couples to buy as many electrical appliances as possible – in any case, to buy far more than double the each of them previously owned when single. I do my wash in a bucket every couple of days, but somehow I doubt that if I ever marry 2 buckets is gonna cut it with my wife. (but is it likely a man content to do laundry in a bucket is going to attract a wife?)
leaving the game show we passed a big puffy thing with kids jumping inside, an inflated spiderman sticking out the top. At the far corner a section of asphalt had been roped off. Kids rode little cars around. The cars had headlights, and the hood and rear glittered with sparkling, changing lights. They rode double. A boy and his dad tailed a little boy and his sister and the 2 laughed delightedly at the chaos, faces lit by the headlights. Little boys turned steering wheels and backed up, absorbed in this game of being a powerful one, an adult. I stood and laughed, and remembered how much I had loved the bumper cars as a kid, the metal paddle scraping noisily across the electrified screen above, the machine wheeling left and right with a touch, or spinning in place, the shock of collision, the look to see if it was a friend or stranger; the pursuit; the eyes of people outside on you. The joy of cartoonish violence and recklessness, bumper-padded selves moshing in little cars. I last did bumper cars in Mexico.
Finally we were ready to eat. At tables at the stir fry place, chilled case displaying pig hearts, octopus, fish, and greens, men and women revelled red-faced and beery in the night heat. We bought a bag of sour salted plum-flavored guava slices. “No Bag,” said Giselle. “No extra deluxe bag?” said the man. “How about a deluxe toothpick?” he offered. We crunched them as we ambled toward the exit. Somehow the seasoning brought out the juice. We bought 10 of the thin skinned dumplings. A tired woman plucked them up and put them in a plastic container. “Spicy?” she asked. “A little,” I said. The CD and DVD sellers were gone as we walked back toward the scooter. They must have been selling pirated stuff. When I had looked over their wares on the way in, they had been nervously packing it all up. The monk was gone when we walked out. He had stood there in brown robes, a charitable phrase written on his bowl held out before him. A lonely figure in the light and heat of the night market. We sat next to a bridge and skewered our dumplings, and she joked I didn’t love her enough to stay in Taiwan. She was smiling, head tilted mischievously, eyes stroking my face. A little boy pushed a toy race car along the sidewalk behind us. “Where is your mom?” asked Giselle.
An auction was going on at a picture gallery across the street from the night market, and some people were already sweeping up the now half-empty field, covered with cups and bags and bones and all the detritus of public pleasure. And I was in Taiwan, and I did love her – no matter where I would be next week.