Monday, February 23, 2009

The Bookstore

1/26/09 After the New Years Eve, the actual Near Year Day seems an anti-climax. I woke up pretty late from my baby-like sleep expectedly so after my visit to the hot spring the previous night. I found that there was actually NOTHING ON THE AGENDA TODAY!! Alas, the state of nothingness lasted for but one hour. My sister Su-Yi and brother-in-law Andy showed up and they decided to take me to the Eslite Bookstore Flagship Store in Eastern Taipei.

I love going to bookstores. Big bookstores, little bookstores, specialty bookstores and any kind of bookstores. There's something about going to an actual bookstore that is very therapeutic. Especially, the Eslite bookstore chain in Taiwan is really quite something. They are chic and elegant looking at the same time, and the selection of books is fantastic. In addition to books, there are also designer-packaged indiginous Taiwanese food products sold here, as if they are fashion items.

My sister Su-Yi took me to the flagship store and we surprisingly found just about the entire population of the City here. It was pretty crowded! But quiet nonetheless. It's as if everyone knows that the bookstore is not meant for raucous new year celebration.

Another reason we came here was because Su-Yi and Andy are architects and the Eslite Bookstore has the best selection of architectural and interior design books. Also, Su-Yi's firm handles all of Eslite's interior. She wanted to show me what she worked on. Interesting!!

Of all the Eslite branches, the most famous in Taipei outside of the Flagship store is probably the one on the Ren-Ai Circle in Taipei City. This is a 24-hour bookstore and it's known to be the "Social Eslite". This reminds me of the "Social Safeway" supermarkets in Washington DC and in San Francisco. While the food may not be abundently available and the produce may not be top notch, the shoppers at these Safeways are certainly mostly very chic looking for grocery shopping. Likewise, the Social Eslite boasts probably the most dressed up bookstore goers one can imagine seeing...I wouldn't mind going next time at wee hours just to watch the people.

I snatched a photo inside of the Japanese book section inside the bookstore, where I spent quite a bit of time browsing.

This turned out to be a very relaxing afternoon and a break from all the food of the previous 24 hours...

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Hot Spring on New Year's Eve

1/25/09 After the Chinese New Year Dinner Extravaganza, all of us stumbled into Uncle William's living room with a full stomach. No one called the card game this year, and the Moms and Dads decided to turn in early. My cousins Ella, Jane and I decided to venture out to do something subdue but fun. Well, what better place to go than to visit the hot springs.

Many places that are prone to earthquakes are abundant with hot springs. Taiwan is one of those places. I grew up with earth quakes large and small, and I grew up enjoying the hot springs that are so abundantly available in northern Taipei. The town of Beitou, which is only several MRT stops away, is known for its plentiful hot spring resort hotels and day spas.

Hot spring carries therapeutic effects on many ailment, including skin conditions, nervous system conditions, and circulation problems; it also promotes general good health. Most Taiwanese day spas or resorts go by the Japanese style of hot spring spa setup, meaning one can take communal all-natural style bath in huge swimming pool-size bath tubs, either indoor or outdoors. These hot spring facilities usually have beautifully appointed indoors bathing spaces, or landscaped garden-setting for outdoors pools. Some facilities require bathing suits when using the hot spring pools; but I prefer those that asks you to go in wearing just your birthday suit...once tried, there's no going back to wearing a bathing suit when enjoying the hot spring. Concerns about seeing others in their most natural state? Nah. Rather, the focus is on relaxation, and I can't get enough of that!

I love a good soak in the hot spring. When Ella and Jane suggested to do so, I jumped at the chance. This is my first visit to the hot spring since coming back to Taiwan! And what a great way to start a new year.

We met up with Ella's neighbor A-Yu, who is about the same age as me. The four of us gals jumped in the car and a short drive later we arrived at the Maple Landis Hotel, in Shin-Beitou district in northern Taipei. Maple Landis is a new hotel under the Landis chain, and I was stunned with the elegant beauty of the hotel upon entering its foyer. We were the only customers at the bathhouse at this late hour.

The bath house was an indoors facility and is a communal bathhouse, male and female separated, in Japanese hot spring style set up. We entered the female bathhouse and first encountered a really nice and elegant locker room. We were each given a locker for us to store our personal belongings and clothing. Then, it's bath time. We entered the bathroom--it's really more like a bath "hall"--and found it a wonderful oasis of beautifully appointed teak wood furniture, huge marble-lined bath pools, lounge chairs, with magazines, teas and mineral water in abundant supply. There was also steam room and a cedar-lined sauna room.

Observing the hot spring etiquette, we each washed thoroughly at the showers alongside the hot spring pools. One good thing about coming to the hot spring spa is that the spa resorts always supply the most interesting toilettries, including shampoo, conditioner, facial cleanser, and shower gel and so on of different "flavors". For us girls, it's like going to the candy store. We took our time trying out those different body and hair products. After showering, we went right into the hot spring bath pools and, oooohhhh, awwwww, certainly was really nice and relaxing. The water was very hot (38-42 degrees celcius depending on which of the 3 pools you choose to get into) but after the initial 30 seconds of getting used to the water temperature, the soft silky smoothness of the hot spring water makes it a completely unbelievably soothing experience.

Maple Landis' hot spring facilities is indoors only. But the bath house is really well ventilated that we were not in lack of fresh air. We sat in the hot water and chit chatted away. Time went by quickly as we went in and out of different pools to try out different spring water, sauna and steam, taking breaks on the lounge chairs enjoying tea and magazines.

After several hours we thought we were quite sufficiently relaxed and finally were ready to get going. As we were exiting, the Hotel staff gave us two big bags full of desserts. It turned out the desserts were included in the bathing package we purchased; just that it was so late and they figured we were not going to be eating here (which indeed we were not going to...) and as such they packed things for us to take home with. How sweet!

As we exited the hotel, the late night air was so fresh and crisp. I really couldn't think because I was so relaxed...but I tried to imagine a little bit about the next few days of new year celebration still ahead...well, life certainly is good!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The One, The Only, The Chinese New Year Dinner!!!!

1/25/09 After all day's waiting, finally, finally, finally, the Chinese New Year Dinner commenced.

Of course the best part of the meal was the conversation and seeing everyone. Of all the Wun cousins, only two were missing this year.

We had some very special dishes for the New Year. First and foremost, the must-have fish dish--as fish symbolizes abundance and everlasting wealth. Then, there's the chicken and pork dishes. There's also the very Taiwanese New Year dishes of pork sausages and preserved striped mullet fish row, sliced and served with raw radish and green onion slices. Uncle Jack and Aunt Cherie also brought their famous seafood dishes. Uncle Jack made my favorite marinated clams, abalone salad, and king crab legs. Aunt Cherie made some very fancy stir-fry dishes of different kinds of delicacies. There were so many dishes on the table we had to layer them--and the dining table was squishy with everyone around it. More were brought out from the kitchen as the meal progressed.

Miss A-Hen, the very capable domestic helper at Uncle William's, busied in and out of the kitchen. She was invited to eat with the family, but as it turned out, she didn't have a moment to sit down. Thanks to her, we had a wonderful meal where my aunts could sit down to eat with everyone else. As for helping out, forget the Wun men!! Two generations of Wun males were comfortably seated and I didn't see any of them showing any interest in kitchen matters! Shall we say typical male behavior on an international scale? (This is with the exception of Uncle Jack who cooked before arrival and brought dishes that hit the spot...Now that's my Uncle Jack!!)

Let's not forget about the beverages of the night. Dad brought a bottle of Chilean red wine from 1981; and Aunt Sherry also had some very special gaolian liquor from Kinmen Island (which is off the Coast of China but under Taiwan governance.) There were also some very unique tea served after dinner.

Last but not least there was also beautiful fruit platters of cherries, pineapples, guavas and wax apples served after dinner. The red, yellow, green and pink made a beautiful combination in the platter and it did help with digestion somewhat--somewhat b/c no matter how hard one tried to exercise self control, it's just not one of those situations where success is not really possible...thank goodness I went walking beforehand...

What To Do With The Mandarin Oranges?

Dear Friends,

The big news of the week in Taiwan is the overproduction of mandarin oranges this year. The price has gone to USD 3 cents per orange; yet no one is buying!

What are some mandarin orange recipes that may come to mind? Let me know and I'll be on my way to buy up oranges to help the orange farmers out!!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ancestral Worshipping, and other traditions

1/25 Before eating the dinner, all the Chinese New Year food is offered to the ancestors before the offering table where the family plaque is placed.

We are a semi-traditional family. Our family rituals are quite simplified. Many of the older traditions like bowing or kneeling on the floor kow-towing to the elders were never practiced at our family. The tradition of new year cash gift from older family members to younger family members have been mostly abolished within the Wun Family (!!!!!) to my dismay and relief. Dismay b/c we don't get money; but relieved because we don't have to give money. We used to play a round of black jack with our new year money, which, in addition to instant redistribution of our temporary wealth, was also a rare occassion when everyone is truly equal to others on that card table; but that has since stopped as well with the abandoning of the red envelopes custom at our family.

Alas, being a good daughter of firm belief in filial piety, I still placed red envelopes with what I thought to be fair amount that would make Mom and Dad happy on their desks respectively, before taking off for dinner today. I have been treated like a princess since coming home that this is one of those rare chances when I can say thanks to them. Maybe one day when I strike that pot of gold I can do up the red envelope thing in grand style...

The Wun Family's ancestral plaque is placed in the alcove at Uncle William's home. Actually Dad is the eldest son, but I suppose it is there at Uncle William's b/c Dad has all girls and our children will not be carrying the Wun family name; and Uncle William's son, my cousin Chiway, will be the next person housing the family plaque, and so on, and so forth. As such Uncle William takes care of the family plaque. In this day and age of equal opportunity and male-female equality, it's kind of interesting to think about the reasoning behind this practice at all. But I've grown used to seeing the family plaque at Uncle William's and Aunt Sherry makes sure there's always fruits, flowers and incense in the offering. And even though none of us have ever been to Chuan-Zhou city in Fujian Province of China, I have always felt some sort of affinity to the place since I've seen that city's name for soooooo many years.

Ancestral worshipping is a tradition that I hold quite dear to my heart even though I haven't done it for many years now. When I think of ancestors, I think of my gramps who passed when I was a child. I remember them quite vividly even though they passed when I was only 3 or 4. When I worship them, I simply say a little prayer. This year there was no incense offered. But the food for Chinese New Year was first offered to the ancestors. Which means we get a preview of what we are about to eat...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Uncle William and His Dogs

1/25/09 The only thing one ever does during the Chinese New Year is eat, and then eat, and then eat some more. This gets to be tough from time to time. So, before launching into heavy duty eating today, Uncle William decided to take me for a walk, to the Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA) Campus.

The TNUA campus is but 5 minutes walk from the front door of Uncle William's place. The school is located on hundreds of acres of land, beautifully landscaped and with fine view over the Taipei basin. Uncle William makes it a habit to feed stray dogs in his neighborhood--and the abundance of stray dogs is a problem here in Taiwan. Many Taiwanese buy dogs from pet stores or pet stands in the night market, and then realize they don't want to keep pets anymore due to space constraint. Some would just abandon the dogs and let them loose!! It has gotten a bit better over the years but one can still fequently see stray dogs in the City of Taipei.

We walked around the campus and Uncle William showed me his usual path. This campus is so nice and spacious. There are all kinds of large sculptures placed here and there on the campus. The view is very clear today. Uncle William's dog friends heard his whistling and showed up like little children jumping about him. He fed them, and played with them a little bit, and then we walked about.
Uncle William also showed me the swimming pool. He swims here at their fantastic indoors pool every moring and is a part of the local community swimming troop. I may consider coming here to swim in the evenings, too.
After about an hour of walking around in brisk pace, we strolled back to the apartment and now I'm ready for that big New Years Eve meal...

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The New Year's Eve at the Wun's

1/25/09 Finally, after eager anticipation, it is the Chinese New Year's Eve!!

The family dinner is held at Uncle William and Aunt Sherry's, as usual. It's eve so exciting to see my uncles, aunts and cousins again. Mom, Dad and I started making way to Uncle Williams by about 4:00pm. Everyone is there already! This is my first Chinese New Year at home in over a decade. Everyone warmly greeted me and everyone showered me with compliments on my success in weight loss. I guess there's looming worries also about how long I can keep this slimming effort up in view of the commencing Chinese New Year celebration, since it is a known fact that starting right this dinner one will be eating nonstop for about the next 10 days.

While Mom, Aunt Sherry, Aunt Cherie and Aunt Sherry's most abled Vietnamese domestic help Miss A-Hen busied about in the kitchen, everyone else just sits back and snacks away. The enormous coffee table at Uncle Williams' is piled with all kinds of goodies particularly prepared for the Chinese New Year--the mixed nuts, the oranges, the preserved plums, and the list goes on and on. There are no "kids" per se. All of us Wun cousins of my generation in the 30s are the kids.

Even sitting around watching TV and chatting w/ cousins was a lot of fun! Little did we know the snacking and chatting was just the beginning of a fun evening...

Saturday, February 7, 2009


1/25/09 Like everywhere else in the world, Taiwan is filled to the brim with fast food chains. Of which, McDonald's is the obvious leader of the pack. However, i was surprised to find the fancy version of McDonald here right near where I live.

This morning Friend N and I went to the McCafe to have breakfast. Well, this just might become my new favorite spot.

The MacCafe concept seems only available outside of the United States--at least I've never seen them in the US of A. This McCafe that I visited is converted from a long-standing McDonald which has been here on this corner of the Chung Shang North Road and Chung Cheng Road for at least the last 20 years. Now that it is a McCafe, it's got a more sophisticated exterior, mostly brown, with cafe-style umbrellas and tables outside on the terrace. The interior is bright and spacious; all counter tops made of granite. Tables well made, none wabbly; even the chairs seem quite upscale.
I ordered a latte, and the coffee drink arrived momentarily and just perfect looking. There are pastries and cakes in the display window. And they are pretty delicious looking!
N originally asked if I wanted to go to some other local or Japanese-invested chain cafes--there is the Starbucks, the Dantes, the Ikaris, and the Manabes, as well as various individual cafes. But after trying the McCafe, I may have to look into the McDonald stock...!!

Good Old Friends and Some New Friends (II)

1/24/09 This evening I went to the Lins for what I thought would be a brief visit but turned out to be a long 2-hour lovely chat.

Benny and Amy are long time friends from the Bay Area. It wasn't until we met in the Bay Area that we discovered that Amy and I went to the same elementary school in Taipei! Amy's family lives right nearby the school, and prior to my return to Taipei Amy had contacted her family to make sure that we meet and get together. Uncle Lin called twice already and I hadn't had a chance to go visit. On this lovely evening right before the Chinese New Year, I decided it was time to visit the Lins' home.

A short 15 minute walk took me to the "Xing Fu Jie" Lane, which, in Chinese, transliterally means "Happy Lucky Lane". What a nice street name. The Lins have lived on this street since supposedly 30+ years ago. I also have some elementary school and kindergarten friends on this street. It's been a long while since I set foot on this street.

Soon enough I located the right building and the Lins took me into their home. This was the first time for me to meet Lin Bobo ("revered uncle"), Lin Mama and D, who is Amy's younger sister and is the same age as me. Their home is a very lovely, welcoming, yet unassuming apartment, with a grand piano smack in the middle of the living room. I know Amy plays piano beautifully and I knew she learned piano from Lin Mama, who is a retired music teacher at a local highschool. D also place piano and plays at her church on Sundays.

Lin Bobo went to San Francisco to visit Amy and I missed the call for me to play local host, thus we didn't meet at that time. He is a kind-looking, energetic man of medium stature and salt-and-pepper hair. I was ushered into the living room where I sat and was quickly greeted by Lin Mama and D a moment later. They are so warm, nice and friendly that I quickly grew fond of them. We started chatting and very quickly the pleasant conversation went on and on and before I knew it, 2 hours passed!

Before we parted, the Lins invited me to church the following morning. They attend the Free Methodist Church right by my elementary school. I didn't have any plans the following morning so I thought it a good idea to go to the service. This set the Lins into action and quickly they produced a detailed map--so detailed it should have been submitted to the Taipei City Government to be incorporated into the official City Map.

Reluctantly we parted ways. The Lins sent me off and we were all happy to have made new friends.

I walked down the dimly lit and very narrow Happy Lucky Lane, noticing both the odor of motor-bike exhaust mixed with the fragrance of night-blooming flowers from the neighborhood fence in the air. One could also hear the occassional dog barking and the somewhat disaccording but pleasant enough sounding music from some kid practicing the piano. These are the sensations I remember, that are so specifically particular of Taipei. As I walked the Happy Lucky Lane, I thought to myself how happy and lucky I have been since coming back to the City with so much of my memories, and so many people who are dear to me. Happy and lucky I am, indeed!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Good Old Friends and Some New Friends (I)

1/24/09 In Taiwan, I have only resided in the Shih-Lin district of Taipei since I was born. My elementary school is in the area, 15 minutes by foot from the apartment that I grew up in. All my immediate family and closer relatives are almost all in Shih-Lin, and I am truly fond of this area. It is scenic, cultural, with great night life, great shopping, great food, and all that jazz. I'm sure every Taipeian (that is officially a word now, says ME) has their particular neighborhood that they are attached to. Mine is Shih-Lin, and more than thinking of myself as a Taipeian, I have to say I identify myself as a Shih-Linian, first and foremost.

To my amazement, many of my fellow Taipeians and Shih-Linians have stayed put and never moved away; or they have moved far away, and some for a long time, but then they decided to move back, despite the fact that they are quite international, really. Maybe they also sense the special something that I sense in Taipei and in Shih-Lin. Once you are a Taipeian, you carry a little of the oxymoron big-city-crazy and the small-town-charm of Taipei with you at all times. Today I met with some old friends and new friends which validate this observation of mine.

Before coming back, I made plans with my friend N from my elementary school days to meet up upon return. Like me he also hasn't moved since his elementary school days. (I mean, I've moved, but I'm back!! So it's as if I haven't moved. Right?) Finally today we had some time to meet up. N and I decided to head to the Takashimaya Department Store which is a short taxi ride away from the MRT station nearest my home. (Actually there's a free shuttle bus from the MRT station, too. Convenient! I will have to control myself so I hop on that free shuttle bus all the time...) The Takashimaya Department Store here in the neighborhood is very popular with all the locals, and it's got a good mix of high-end and affordable goods. I especially like the bookstore within as well as the restaurants within the Department Store.

N is a landscape designer at a large construction company and he frequented Vietnam for work quite a bit. As such we decided to go for Southeastern Asian food. Among the restaurants within Takashimaya, we decided on The Spoon, which is a Thai restaurant. The very finely decorated restaurant has a pre-fixe menu for two people (good deal!) and we got to make some selections also among the pre-fixe items. The service was great, too.

While enjoying the food we chatted about the elementary days. We reminisced about the good old days...I cannot believe it's that very many years ago!

N and I profusely complimented each other on how we each haven't changed whatsoever--which, I'm sure to whomever else would be a blatant lie; but the funny thing is I think we were both pretty genuine about this and it is true that we didn't have any problem recognizing each other from the good old days even though the last time we saw each other was at least 10 years ago, and, before then, when we were in elementary school. In fact, I didn't keep in touch with that many from pre-highschool days, much less elementary school days. N and I actually re-connected thanks to the Internet quite accidentally, about 10 years ago. Amazing. The cyber world.

We had some great food--Thai fish cake, seafood salad, and some delicious chicken curry. But of course the best thing was that I got to spend some time with some good old friend.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Andy's Birthday Celebration

1/23/09 Yesterday was my brother-in-law Andy's birthday. Dad invited us all for a birthday celebration at Restaurant "Izakaya Watami" for dinner.

"Izakaya" (pronounced "eeee-za-ka-yah") is actually a Japanese word rather than a Chinese word. And, rather than a restaurant, an Izakaya is actually the place to enjoy alcoholic beverages while having some light snacks. It is best described as a subdued version of a bar.

Izakaya Watami is a Japanese franchise restaurant. The particular restaurant we went to was on Tun-Hwa South Road, which is one of the main thoroughfares in Taipei.

I haven't seen my pregnant sister Su-Yi much at all since coming back to Taipei. Neither have I seen Andy really, except for the two seconds at the door the other day. This birthday would be Andy's last BD before he becomes a Dad, since Su-Yi is about to pop the baby out anytime now. Thanks to Dad's invite, it's nice to have some time to sit down and enjoy a nice meal and good conversation together. Besides Mom, Dad, Su-Yi, Andy and me, Andy's parents Huang Mama and Huang Papa, as well as my Uncle William and cousin Ella were here at the dinner, too. It's been a while since I've been in the same city with so many relatives. But now I realize it's kind of nice to just call people up, and off you go and there's a party in progress!

Because the business was so good, Restaurant Izakaya Watami not only required reservation, it also required you to leave at a particular time. In other words the reservation gaurantees your seating for a pretty specific block of time. That's something new for me.

We had beautiful sashimi (raw fish) dishes, all kinds of Japanese dishes to go with some fine wine and sake. Everyone had a great time. Andy's parents came with the world's most delicious cheese cake. It really was a great dinner!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cafe by the National Park

1/22/09 I have the good fortune of living right near the Yangmingshan National Park, which is located within the City of Taipei, to the northern rim of the Taipei basin. Finally I get to visit again today.

What a beautiful spot this is. Growing up, I have come here so many times to hike, to picnic, and to look at the spring blossoms in season. The family graveyard is also on Mt. Yangmingshan inside of the municipal cemetary. I remember paying annual tribute to Grandpa, Grandma and the never-met great grand parents every year on the day of the Tomb Sweeping Festival.

The Datun Nature Reserve was the perfect place for an excellent and relaxing walk-about. It was misty and damp but green everywhere.

Half way through the afternoon, it was time for coffee. Smack inside of the park there's the winding Jingshan Road lined with secluded cafes. This time I had coffee at Cafe 19. The place looks like a French farm house. Large windows opened up to the beautiful garden featuring a creek and two madly blooming cherry blossom trees by the water. There are seats, sofas, mattresses, everywhere. Curling up on the sofa sipping my coffee, the very handsome owner Wei Wei asked me if I wanted a blanket. !!!! That just made it all perfect for a quiet afternoon in the Yangmingshan National Park.