Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Kaohsiung at Night!!

1/29/09 After dinner we roamed some more and ended up on the top terrace of the mall, which is a pretty good size playground and amusement park and was packed with people. The ferris wheel with completely see through gondolas is all the rage and the line was long beyond my wildest belief, so I decided to skip it.

With the afternoon nap, the walking about, and the long wait to the meal, plus the meal time, plus the shopping afterwards, it was actually very late already. We decided to head back to the hotel.
As if the meal was not satisfying enough, seeing that we were on a trip, indulging ourselves a little bit would not be the end of the day--hey, I survived a 10-day Alaska cruise with regular 6-time-feedings throughout the day, what's one night in Kaohsiung gonna do for me!?
Friend and I decided we needed some BEER. If you get beer here, you need snacks to go with the beer. Our choice of snack for the evening is the down home southern garlic flavored dried tofu curds. While they look very brown and dubius to those who are not from Taiwan, dried tofu curds are bar-none the BEST snack to go with beer. Period. No discussion necessary. If I signed up for the Amazing Race and they feed me this stuff, I would surely beat the others to the million bucks.
At this late hour of the night, thank goodness Taiwan is an island filled to the brim with 24-7 convenient stores at every street corner. We hit the one right near the hotel, and bought the beers and the snacks, and went back to our hotel. Now with refreshments in our hands, we watched TV and chatted late into the night. From our hotel room, we could see the very dramatic and beautiful night view of the city. I know I haven't seen much of Kaohsiung except for one shopping mall, but for some reason I like the fact that I'm taking in the slower southern pace, kicking back, relaxing, and just having a good time. I know somehow we will see KS plenty within the remainder of the weekend...

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Dream Mall

1/29/09 For dinner and entertainment that evening, we decided to head to the Dream Mall.

The Dream Mall is one of the most popular shopping destinations in Kaohsiung. We took a taxi to the Dream Mall, and before even approaching, I discovered that Kaohsiung streets are all wider by a lot compared to Taipei City.

The Dream Mall is HUGE!!! What's more, as soon as I stepped into the lobby atrium, there's the Cold Stone Ice Creamry! What can't you find in Taiwan these days!?!

We were quite hungry and headed for the restaurants within the mall, almost all of which were on the same level. WELL!! We arrived a little bit behind the crowd, and as a result, many restuarants already were fully booked for the night! We found one hot pot+table top grilling restaurant which were still accepting walk-ins, at 45 minutes of wait time. Better than nothing, I suppose. We browsed for 45 minutes and then arrived at the restaurant to be seated.

The restaurant is nicely decorated, with fish tanks atop the dividing walls separating each seating booth. It's kind of an interesting experience cooking and viewing the swimming fishies at the same time.
The meal consists of two parts--a hot pot on my left, and a table top grill to my right. The wait staff started bringing enormous amounts of food to our table. This is Kaohsiung indeed!! Even food portions are larger down south. We had plentiful vegetables and slices of delicious beef. It was a very satisfying meal indeed.
After eating, we continued roaming around and came by a beautiful traditional Taiwanese pastry shop, Yu-Jen-Zai. The pastry shop is famous the island over and originated from my dad's home town in Zhanghua County. Even traditional pastry shops are franchised these days. So it is not strange to see one of their stores here at the Dream Mall. I saw one of my favorite snacks, Mua-Lao, which is this sticky-skinned pastry with foamy insides. The skin is sticky because the crunchy exterior of the pastry is covered with wheat-germ syrup and then coated with either sesame seeds or almond slices. YUM YUM!! Bought some, and moved on to the top floor.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

To the South...(I)

(picture: Tuntex Sky Tower and the City of Kaohsiung, taken from the room window at Han-Hsien International Hotel)

1/29/09 Ever since coming back to Taiwan this time, I haven't left the City of Taipei. Today marked the first time I'll be visiting another city since my return. Destination: Kaohsiung, the 2nd largest city in Taipei, and one of the largest port cities of Taiwan. When Friend B suggested that we take an overnight mini vacation in Kaohsiung, I happy obliged.

If Taipei were like New York, then Kaohsiung would be like Los Angeles, so to speak. Taipei is built up, squishy, sophisticated, slightly harsh and rushed. Kaohsiung on the other hand is sprawling, spread out, relaxed, slower in pace, and leisurely. Even people's tastes and taste buds are different--Taipei folks like solid colors and savory food; whereas Kaohsiung folks like splashy outfits and sweetened dishes. Of course this is generalization, but there's some truth to these stereotypical impressions that come to mind every time one speaks of these two cities.

Friend B and I took off half way through the afternoon. We were going to drive there; but decided to take the High Speed Railway instead. The HSR was completed just a few years ago, and it's really fantastic. We arrived in Kaohsiung mid-afternoon and checked into the hotel.

Perhaps due to lingering jetlag or time difference, perhaps due to the heat of Southern Taiwan, I felt quite tired upon arrival and took a nap as soon as we got to the hotel. The nap turned out to be four hours long. By the time I woke up, it was already getting dark outside. Looking out the window, I got my first impression of Kaohsiung--the beautiful skyline and the hustle bustle of the port city.

Sing Your Heart Out...

(Picture: Ella singing, Omar looking for a song, Jane putting in her song's order, and Chiyue working the coffee pot. Inside of the KTV compartment.)

1/28/09 After the meal, the Wun cousins decided to leave the township of Tamsui and venture into the City of Taipei. It's been a while for any of us to go to a KTV, and we were in the mood to sing--hard to explain, but hey, this is the land of Karaoke we're talking about--so off we went to the Cash Box "KTV" in Eastern Taipei.

Ella drove Jane, Chiyue and myself across town and we arrived at the Cash Box KTV. Omar joined us in about an hour. I am out of practice either in singing or in going to a KTV, so I stood back and let others take charge of getting us a private room with the singing machine, the screen, and the rest of the gadgets.

the Cash Box KTV that we went to was one of the first and the most well established of all the KTVs in--I dare say--all of Taiwan, if not the rest of Asia. The entrance hall looks like that of a 5-star hotel, with chandelier and marbled floor. We registered for a room, were ushered to the elevator, and then were shown a room on the 5th floor of this entire enormous KTV building. The room was spacious and has cushy couches, granite tables and even a bathroom within the room itself. It could comfortably seat 6 or 7 people, so we made ourselves quite at home as soon as we stepped in.
Here's some sidebar info on KTV and Kareoke...the concept of Karaoke, which is a form of entertainment where people sing along with music and music video with the lyrics on a screen, originated in Japan. It has taken off in Taiwan during the early 80s, and I venture to say one cannot easily find a Taiwanese who hasn't been to a Karaoke at least once. Does everyone sing, or sing well? The answer is...Who cares!! The quality of singing is never the issue. Especially considering KTVs are in small room settings. You are singing among friends and family. The fun of getting over the initial embarrasement to sing before people you know--or don't know--is the entire point. Music and tension release are both good for health. Truly, it's a life enriching experience. Gotta give it a try.
Back to the KTV scene...We excitedly got into the room and little to my surprise, my cousins grabbed the remote control and the index folders listing all the songs available on the singing machine system, and started entering the songs like mad.
Very soon, the first song came up on the system and the microphones were passed around. Each person whose chosen song came up on the screen enthusiastically jumped to get the mic, and the rest of us were there to give the utmost support. To my great amazement, all my cousins sang like pros! On the other hand I have been out of loop and out of practice at singing any Chinese pop songs, so I opted for some old time favorites. Thankfully my cousins were equally encouraging.

The KTVs are known for tasty snacks, too. There are some menus and some KTVs even boast a little buffet bar on each floor. We ordered some food and drinks and had our dinner here--after that big lunch at such late hour, we really couldn't eat another full blown meal anymore. These snacks were just right for this time.

All of us had a great time singing, chit chatting, and eating. Three hours passed and we barely noticed. It wasn't until it was really late that we decided to call it a night.
Chiyue was leaving for Japan the following day early in the morning; we all said goodbye reluctantly. I am already longing for the next family get-together where I would be able to see all my cousins soon.

Friday, March 13, 2009

On the Third Day of New Year Aunt Tsui-Mei Came to Us...

(picture: Dumplings, a typical Chinese New Year food especially in the North of China.)

1/28/09 OK, 3rd day of the New Year. Big day ahead of everyone. Dad's older sister Aunt Tsui-Mei, her husband Uncle Ga-Lock and their children and grand children stage the Wu Clan's visit on this very day.

The fare is hosted by Aunt Shirley and Uncle William. Mom, Dad and myself took our time getting up in the morning, and getting ready. This was because the Wu Clan was somehow known to arrive behind scheduled time. I mean, really, really late. Like several hours late. Normally it is not ok really to make such an, uh, unfashionably late arrival, honestly. Knowning my dad and uncles, late arrival may very well trigger a nuclear melt down and the island could be shaken. BUT, it being the Chinese New Year and it being Aunt Tsui-Mei's day to visit with her brothers, we go by her schedule. This is the Grand Dame of the Wun's and the Wu's. Aunt Tsui-Mei calls the shots. She's the Queen Mother of our big extended family. And she always so impeccably, elegantly and beautifully put together that she looks like one, too!!

Uncle Jack's family was there too by the time Mom, Dad and I arrived. All of the Wuns from my generation--with the exception of my sister Sabrina--were present. Good! It was especially good to see Cousin Chiyue, who works in Japan and Mainland China and I hardly ever see him. I was one of the very few family members visiting him while he studied in Japan many years ago. I still think very fondly of our time spent together in Japan. Chiyue was so kind and took very good care of me, even though we are quite far apart in age, with me being much older. With his fluency in Japanese and familiarity with the culture and the places, I always felt very safe with him leading the way while visiting him in Japan.

Suddenly there were many dogs on the scene. My cousin Jane somehow teamed up with Uncle William and are known for their stray dog neighborhood rescue mission. This has been going on for many years. Between the two of them, we now have a house full of people, and 5 dogs on premise.

Time was still early because it was barely lunch time. Aunt Tsui-Mei's family will not be coming until it's LUPPER time (meaning 2-4pm.) We watched TV, played with the dogs, snacked away, chatted, tried out the very fancy massage chairs and exercise equipment all about Uncle William's spacious flat. The moms and the helpers busied themselves in the kitchen. Everyone had something to do and we were really quite ok waiting.

By 3pm, the front door opened and people started pouring in. All these cousins and their kids from the Wu clans showed up. Aunt Tsui-Mei looking her usual gorgeous self swept in, everyone greeted each other enthusiastically.

Before the meal even started, in her grandios style, Aunt Tsui-Mei whipped out a thick stack of red envelopes--with a wad of cash inside each of the envelopes--and started dispening them to those of us who are of the younger generation among the Wuns. This, ladies and gentlemen, would be the only red envelope to be received by me this year, and it is received with a bit of thick skin for sure. As far back as I can remember, Aunt Tsui-Mei is always famous for her exceeding generosity with her red envelopes. Even though my dad and his brothers and their wives all decided that we should stop the red envelopes practice among the Wuns, Aunt Tsui-Mei will not have it. She insisted that she must give red envelopes to each and every of her niece and nephew. As one can imagine, this was a somewhat awkward moment for the grown "kids" of my generation. We really were quite beyond the legitimate age to be receiving red envelopes. They are for children--liberally defined; but then again the youngest Wun cousin of my generation is already 31 this year. Aunt Tsui-Mei tracked us down one by one, stuck a fire-engine red envelope in each of our hands, and we gratefully and giddily said thank-you. I especially profusely thanked her for the New Year envelope, and my very petite Aunt Tsui-Mei slapped me hard on my right shoulder, gesturing me to clutch my envelope hard and go off with it...

The meal started and everyone was in good spirit. There were too many of us to sit at one table so we sat divided by our respective generation. All the aunts and uncles sat together in the dining room; while there's another round table seating the 12 of us from the younger generation.

Aunt Shirley's help A-Hen kept bringing out more and more and more and more food, until finally our table was barely visible and completely covered with dishes. We ate enthusiastically and admiringly as each dish came out. But very soon we were completely in awe of the amount of food brought out from that kitchen. We looked at each other, some of us looked a bit, what's the word? Overwhelmed, by the sheer quantity of the food present. They were all extremely tasty, and were being produced at an astonishing speed.

Half way through the meal I realized maybe it was time to stage that New Year greeting toast from our table to the Aunts and Uncles. I looked around and found that I was the oldest cousin. Well, that means I had to lead the pack! I filled my glass with the liquor there on the table, and motioned EVERYONE to walk over to the Auntie and Uncle Table (AUT) with me. Everyone slowly stood up and followed suit. It was visibly clear that we were in that mode of overconsumption. Will power to diet can drastically weaken in the presence of food, especially during the Chinese New Year. We were living proof of that!!

Arriving at Destination AUT, we made a round of raucous toast, and the aunts and uncles were happy to see us. We clanked glasses and toasted, drank, filled our glasses and drank some more. This was the epitome of the New Year for all of us. The Big Reunion. I suddenly realized I have been missing this scene for almost 20 years. It almost brought tears to my eyes!

As we finally wrapped up the meal, Aunt Tsui-Mei cheerfully said to me, "come for the Walk-of-Spring very soon!!" The Walk-of-Spring is the New Year expression of a visit to a relatives' home. It sure would be nice to do the Walk-of-Spring up the hill to visit Aunt Tsui-Mei. Maybe I'll do so to mark the reinitiation of my continued dieting, after all this crazy amount of food!!

The Idyllic Villa 32

1/27/09 As I was enjoying the meal with Mom, Dad, Siu-Wan and Edward, the phone rang, and it was my cousin Jane looking for me!

I curiously took the phone from Mom and Jane told me that Aunt Shirley just called her and was wondering if I would be free to visit the hot spring in Beitou with Jane and herself. Well, would I ever say no to a hot spring soak? We quickly said ok and agreed to meet at the Shin-Beitou MRT station in 1.5 hours.

I knew I was in for a treat--but I didn't know it was a really special treat. Aunt Shirley picked Jane and I up at the Shin-Beitou MRT station, which is famous for its plentiful hot spring spas and resorts nearby. We drove up this little hill, arrived at a nondescript entrance. Two valet men greeted us. A cement block was before us. It read "32".
This was the renown Villa 32, one of the most reputable and luxurious hot spring spas not only in Beitou, but in the country and maybe even in all of Asia. Most recently it was named one of the six most romantic escapes in Asia by an international travel magazine. I had wanted to come here but haven't had the chance to. I thought our very elegant Aunt Shirley in her usual resourceful way has gotten some discount coupons or sorts for this special visit today. It turned out that she JUST wanted to come and she JUST wanted us to come with her. It's Aunt Shirley's New Year treat for Jane and I. Well, with pleasure, how could I possibly think of turning her down!!??
Even though it was dark, we started snatching pictures the moment we stepped into the door. The front garden was beautifully landscaped and we could see the mist of hot spring water even in the dark. The welcoming lighting in the reception building beckoned us and we slowly walked into it, admiring the beautiful and peaceful surroundings. We had to stop the photography as soon as we were exiting the reception area. As what was before us were the general public spa area, which means we were disrobing and there would be no more pictures! It's a shame really because the general spa was really, really, really pretty to look at. Thankfully the Villa's website has photos of the interior--Sans the naked poeple.

Aunt Shirley, Jane and myself first enjoyed a long and relaxing shower while trying out all the very luxurious bathing products at the shower. Then, we entered the zen-influenced garden spa where various pools of different types of hot springs awaited us. We soaked and drank mineral water, chatted and relaxed, watched the nearby sulpheric valley with fuming mist from the varendah which disguised and shielded us bathers cleverly from people walking about out there in the valley, while allowing us great vantage points of the very exotic volcanic landscape and views.

This was a cool evening and most ideal for hot spring visit. We took our time trying out every single pool out here in the vast garden, hardly seeing anyone else while we were in the spa. We knew there were others, but it's kind of interesting each pool was somewhat hidden from the other pools, and bathers sort of have this pact of not engaging in coversations or at times not even any eye contacts or polite knodding. It's kind of a move-on-as-others-come arrangement understood by everyone. Of course thank goodness there were no frequent movers. Everyone was taking in the hot spring pool of their choice at a slow and leisurely pace, before moving on to another pool.

After several hours(!!) we decided it was time to take a break from the hot water and move on to some beverage and refreshments. Hot spring tends to make one hungry, that's for sure!!

We wandered up to the 2nd floor of the spa building, where we found a quiet and nicely decorated relaxation room and some sleeping rooms. In the lounge area there's a huge huge huge flat screen TV, and many choices of tea, coffee, and magazines. We all sat down and tried out different beverages while reading the latest magazines, but it's hard to really do any kind of reading, even light reading such as that of a fashion magazine--I was in such a state of complete relaxation I found that I could barely even focus with my eyes open!! Thank goodness Aunt Shirley was the one to drive, ha. The service was impeccable and extremely friendly, by the way.

Finally, it was time to go...Jane, myself and Aunt Shirley reluctantly made our way out. The car was already waiting for us outside--too soon of an exit from a dreamy night at the hot spring at Villa 32!

I could see Aunt Shirley flashing her signature smile on the way home...who can resist smiling after such a great visit to such an idyllic spot!

Some Pleasant Surprise Visitors

1/27/09 Going to A-Gong's for a festive and abundant lunch turned out to be just the beginning of another exciting day of continued New Year celebration. The New Year is usually also time for friends and relatives to visit each other. This afternoon, after returning home, we received a pleasant bunch of visitors--The Chens from Hsin-Chu, which is a city south of Taipei known for its science park and many FABs (IT and semiconductor factory labs.)

We got to know the Chens back in the early 80s. Mom had an operation at a local hospital and her young nurse Siu-Wan was a pleasant and friendly girl. She became fast friends with my sister Sabrina and myself, as we visited Mom daily at the hospital and Siu-Wan found us among the very few who were somewhat close in age with her. My mom took such a liking to her that she became a "dry" daughter--the equivalence of a God daughter in the Western culture. When Siu-Wan met and started dating the very nice and handsome Mr. Edward Chen, I remembered my sister and I being invited to dinner with the pair. They are like big brother and big sister to us to this day.

Hsin-Chu my mother's hometown, and is also the city where Edward works, as he is an executive for a reputable company down at the Science Park. It is a bit far from Taipei by local standard of traveling distance and we don't see the Chens often. However in the afternoon we received news that the Chens will be coming for dinner and since Siu-Wan is a daughter of sorts to my mother, the timing is only just right for us to welcome her on the 2nd of the New Year.

A home-bound visit by a daughter is not to be taken lightly. Since neither of my sisters were coming for dinner--Su-Yi went home to rest and Sabrina is all the way in the States--Siu-Wan will be the daugther my mother will receive today on the 2nd of the New Year. Mom started cooking like mad, putting aside the fact that we just had a big fat meal at A-Gong's for lunch.

By early evening the Chens have arrived. Siu-Wan hasn't changed one bit and looks to me just like her sweet self back in the day; it's hard to believe she already has a teenage daugther and a 9-year-old son of her own. Edward also was in great spirit and being the ever so discerning gentleman that he is, he brought a great bottle of wine--which we happily drank over dinner enthusiastically prepared by Mom.

We enjoyed the meal and the conversation while the two lovely kids ran about in our flat. It was to me what the Chinese New Year is all about--family getting together, friendship reacquainted, and a good time and good food to be had.

Alas, this is not the end of my fun on the 2nd of the New Year...there's more to come all within 24 exciting hours.

Lunch at Grandpa's on the 2nd of New Year

1/27/09 Interestingly and unexpectedly, January 1st of the Lunar New Year was not as action packed. I had a relaxing day up at the mountain walking dogs with Uncle William, to be followed by a stroll through Eslite Bookstore with my sister and brother-in-law. Spent the night at Su-Yi's and cooked a simple home cooked meal for the three of us. A perfectly perfect quiet and relaxing day.
But the 2nd of the New Year is always a fun day to look forward to, as it is traditionally reserved for the married daughters to return to their original families and spend the day with their parents. On this day, we always return to my maternal grand parents' home for a big meal and fun get-together with my aunts and cousins.
A-Gong--which is how I call my maternal grandpa--is my only remaining grandparent. He is 92 years old this year and despite some failing memory, he is usually quite in good spirit. Mom and Dad and I got ready and arrived promptly by lunch time at A-Gong's apartment, to find my Aunt Lisha, her daughters Chi Chi and Yong-En, my sister Su-Yi and brother-in-law Andy already arrived and having a jovial time.
The meal was prepared by my eldest uncle's wife Aunt So-Jing, and A-Gong's domestic caretaker. We sat around the big old table with the lazy suzy turner that's been around at A-Gong's for as long as I can remember.
The lazy suzy is laiden with food. I perused the table and find the usual New Year fare of chicken, sausages, fish, shrimp, vegetables with lucky meanings, and last but not least, roasted striped mullet roe--and if you wonder about that, it is indeed a mysterious item. Pressed stripped mullet fish roe roasted on fire and then sliced into thin slices, to be consumed with equally thin slices of radish or green onion. Acquire taste, but yum yum to those who like it, and definitely considered a delicacy and definitely a New Year thing.
Aunt So-Jing whipped out the bottle of whiskey and, voila!! We were in business tackling another full blown meal!!
The conversation largely surrounds Su-Yi's upcoming birth. She's about to pop any day now.
A-Gong does not remember hardly anyone's name, but he kept toasting througout the meal. So cute! It's good to see him in good spirit.