Two former expat residents of Taiwan spend a day wandering through Kunshan, hoping to find a way to recreate the "Taiwan experience."
Chris had come to Taiwan to find work, but due to an unfortunate misunderstanding over his visa, he was forced to turn tail and do the mandatory chu guo not long after the ink on his limited-duration entry permit had dried. Lacking funds, he came to the mainland, and settled in a small town in southern China. It was in this town that we became friends, and eventually decided to do some traveling together. While strolling along The Bund in Shanghai one day, Chris confided in me that he regretted having been deprived of the true "Taiwan experience."
"I went to a few night markets, I visited Yangmingshan, but I don't really feel like I've experienced Taiwan," he lamented.
As a former long-term Taiwan resident, I felt that it was my duty to try to rectify in some small way the missing data in my friend's Flashram card of travel memories. But the gigabytes of digital pictures I had on my laptop were mere visual aids. Even the ample clips from stories written for this and other fine Taiwan publications could not properly evoke the smells, the sounds, and the soul of the home island. Lacking the funds to book an expensive seat on the so-called "direct" Spring Festival charter flight from Shanghai to Taipei (with just the barest yet completely illogical touchdown in Hong Kong), I decided that we'd have to do the next best thing -- seek out Shanghai's Taiwanese ghetto and find whatever Taiwanese "heart" existed to be found.
Such a place had to exist. According to a recent article in the Asian Wall Street Journal, over a quarter of a million Taiwanese call the Greater Shanghai metropolitan area home. And whenever people from one place congregate someplace else for any length of time, the place where they dwell develops its own peculiar feel. New York City and San Francisco's Chinatowns are prime examples. Los Angeles' "Korea Town" (one of the few places in America where you can get a decent dog dish with the right connections) is another. But more importantly than the local cuisine is the subtle shift in gravity that happens in any ethnic enclave, turning a once-dull stretch of real estate into a microcosm of the homeland, complete with the aura that goes with it.
With over a quarter of a million Taiwanese reputed to be living in and around Shanghai, surely there would be a place where I could introduce my friend and unfortunate victim of the ROC's stringent visa regulations to a reasonable facsimile of the sights, sounds, and flavor of my once-adopted home island.
I had heard through the grapevine of other former Taiwan-based expatriates (most of whom had come to the mainland in search of that really big score) that there was some kind of "Taiwan Street" in Shanghai. Asking around produced no clear direction, though we did find plenty of restaurants claiming to serve "genuine Taiwanese food." One of the larger chains in Shanghai and Beijing is a place called Yonghe Doujiang, and there are plenty of establishments calling themselves "Taiwan Tea Shops" and offering "real Taiwan pearl milk tea." After much questioning of locals working at places like these, our search for a true Taiwanese enclave seemed to have hit a brick wall.
It was, oddly enough, in an underground mall called "Hong Kong Alley" that runs below People's Square that we made a breakthrough. We were eating some steamed buns when I overheard two smartly dressed black-suited men having a conversation in that machine-gun staccato dialect that my ex used to use around me when saying something she didn't want me to understand. I took my chance and approached them, saying "Hello, are you from Taiwan?" in halting Hokkien.
Then I added, "have you eaten?" -- just to fully exhaust my repertoire in the dialect.
The men, it turned out, were indeed homeboys of the home island, and seemed pleased at being addressed in their mother tongue so far from home. After some polite conversation that far exceeded my own 20-plus words of Taiwanese-language vocabulary, I switched to Mandarin and posed the question. Was there indeed a neighborhood in Shanghai owned and operated by, and catering to, the mainland's Taiwan diaspora?
"A neighborhood?" He laughed. "We have our own city here, Kunshan. Some people call it "Taiwan Town," but it's bigger than a town. Great food, too."
At last -- a clear direction. Of course, the news shouldn't have come as a surprise. For years, Kunshan has been a magnet for Taiwanese investment. Some reports have claimed that as many as 30 percent of all Taiwanese companies with investments in China have operations in Kunshan. But has all this investment created a genuine "ethnic enclave" feeling? There was really only one way to find out. Thanking the gentlemen, we headed off to the bus station and boarded a smoky mini-bus for the 50-minute trip to Kunshan, Shanghai's own Taiwan Town.
The first thing that struck us about Kunshan was how new and (relative to most Chinese cities) well planned the city seemed. On the outskirts of town, wide, straight avenues are home to new factories belonging to well-known Taiwanese companies. The downtown area was mostly free of the centuries of accumulated grime found covering most Chinese cities. Rows of new apartment buildings with clean, white tile facades lined either side of the canals that pass through town. New construction was everywhere, and the streets crackled tangibly with the sort of motion and vivacity common to places on the economic upside.
The first familiar vision that confronted us on our walk was a bit unexpected -- a building shaped like a golf ball on steroids that looked like a miniaturized version of Taipei's Core Pacific mall. This turned out to be the Kunshan Convention Center. Taiwanese are responsible for as much as US$100 billion of investments into the mainland, according to some estimates, and it's a good bet that at least some of the initial handshaking and namecard swapping that opens the cash valves happens here. As we had come in-between events, there was nothing going on inside the center, so I stopped into the Aoyu, a hotel next door for a chat with the manager, who turned out to be a Kunshan native.
"Most of our guests are Taiwanese, as are those in most of the better hotels in town." she told me. "While the managers of the factories live in Kunshan, when the VIPs come to town, they stay here."
I asked her how Kunshan natives felt about their city having become known as "Taiwan Town" in recent years. "Personally, I don't like to call Kunshan "Taiwan Town.' though I understand that some people think of the town that way. It's true that our Taiwanese compatriots make up a majority of our waisheng (out of province) population, and that many of the new businesses here were started by Taiwanese. However, most native Kunshan people prefer to think of the city as more like a small Shenzhen, a thriving new city which is inviting to people from all over China. Besides, we're all Chinese."
Down the block, we stopped into a real estate office run by a man surnamed Wu. "Kunshan is booming, my business in particular is doing great, and much of this is due to the contributions of our Taiwanese compatriots. Many Taiwanese people are buying apartments around here, and they generally tend to want to buy in newer buildings, places with good facilities and security. This translates into higher earnings for me, so you can call Kunshan "Taiwan Town' all you like."
Chris and I felt that we'd confirmed the business angle pretty well, so we headed over to Renmin Road, the heart of Kunshan's glitzy commercial district street. Restaurants offering "Real Taiwanese cuisine" abounded, serving local favorites like Taiwan beef noodle soup, Tainan-style noodles, stinky tofu, and grass-jelly soup. There was even one place serving that heart-stopping favorite, Taiwanese beefsteak served with a semi-raw egg. We stopped into a hole-in-the-wall-type tea shop and had some papaya milkshakes and fishball soup.
I asked the girl serving up the food, who seemed to be around high-school age, if she was Taiwanese. "No, I'm from Fujian Province. My cousin owns this restaurant. He's from Taiwan." I asked if I could interview him about business, but she told me that he almost never came in. "He's usually out doing business or playing golf." Apparently, the restaurant was just a small part of the boss's overall business empire.
We strolled around Renmin Road for an hour and did some shopping in the ultra-modern shops and malls along the street, played some pachinko, and had some pearl milk tea. I found a stand selling chou tofu, but Chris refused to eat it on the grounds that it smelled "like sweatsocks." There was clearly lots of money being made and spent in Kunshan -- every third store seemed to sell cell phones, far above the norm for a Chinese city. But still, I didn't feel as if I'd even come close to finding a place that really felt like Taiwan.
True, we had eaten fishball soup and smelled the stinky tofu. We had seen signs for endless Taiwan-based businesses. But I didn't really feel as if we'd experienced anything that harkened back to days spent in the bosom of the adopted mother island. "It's getting late," Chris said. "Let's take the train back to Shanghai. According to the map, the station is east on Renmin Road."
We walked down Renmin, past the glitter and neon, and soon we crossed over a bridge which seemed to mark the border between the new city and the old. The nature of Renmin Street changed, becoming gloomier as it shifted from a shopping district to a street of run-down tenement-style buildings with darkened windows. There were no neon lights on this stretch of the road, and no streetlights either. Aside from the dim moonlight, there was only one source of light on the entire block:
Barbershop Poles. Lots of them.
For perhaps 300 meters, there was almost nothing on the ground level of this street but opaque windows and slim doorways with barbershop poles next to them -- sixty, maybe even eighty of the swirling glass phallic advertisements. In a few places, dark alleys separated the buildings, and down these alleys were more barbershop poles. Few other signs of commerce were present, and the only signs of life we saw were men emerging from taxicabs and heading into one of the "barber shops," or else heavily made-up women heading out of the shops and into waiting cabs.
We stopped into a small, dingy store selling candy and bought a bottle of water for the train ride home. "Lot of barbershops on this block," I commented to the proprietor. "Lots of guys in Kunshan whose wives are far away," he answered. "So you're saying that these places are..." I let my voice trail off suggestively. "Barbershops," he said, winking "Men working so far away from home need constant hair care."
Paying for our water, we headed towards the train station and back to Shanghai. We had visited Kunshan, and saw what there was to see of Shanghai's Taiwan Town. Perhaps we didn't find its heart, but at least we found its prostate gland.