I would prefer not to be walking through the gay village in a cowboy hat. Underneath the parasols, guys sit and sip Long Island ice teas to the thud of European dance music. Like a beacon on my head, sits the brown leather cowboy hat. This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I arrived in the youth capital of Taiwan in search of an accommodation, good food and an ice cold beer.
To the strains of a beggar blowing into his harmonica, I had exited the crowded metro station four hours earlier. A gothic teenager threw a few pennies of loose change into the jar. From high above the street, a poster of Indiana Jones gazed down at the mass of scantily clad young women, illegal street vendors and yellow cabs with their dropped suspensions and cutesy bumper stickers. Perhaps even old Indy could sense the promise of adventure.
I set off along Hanzhong Road in search of food. The street was lined with vendors selling Sponge Bob key fobs, Mickey Mouse T-shirts and Hello Kitty backpacks. Most vendors trade from lightweight suitcases, ready to shut up shop with the flick of a wrist. Others have abandoned any semblance of permanence and trade directly from hold alls.
At the intersection of Hanzhong Road and Emei Road, just a minute’s walk from the metro station, food vendors hawk a tantalizing range of barbecued and fried snacks. I plumped for a stall run by a Eurasian looking man who sold me a delicious chicken sandwich for NT$60. As I was walking away, a loud roar went up behind me announcing a police raid, and with well-rehearsed precision, the carts, suitcases and hold alls were shuttled out of sight. Judging by the faces of a few unhappy customers, the raid went down before they could receive their change.
There are plenty of legitimate restaurants in Ximen Ding. The Korean restaurant at 34 Hanzhong Road serves delicious authentic Korean food. Their Shi Guo Ban Fan is a mixture of beef, rice and vegetables cooked together in a stone bowl. When it arrives, mix it all together and leave it a few minutes to continue cooking. At NT$150, it represents good value for a filling meal.
It’s hard to describe Xiamen as a shopper’s paradise. It’s got plenty of shops, but most of them sell cheap tat, appealing to nobody over 14-years-old. The mini-mall at 72 Xining South Road, just opposite my inn, is a little bit different. It houses three floors of miniature boutiques, shoe shops and cologne stores. It's a great place to pick up cheap clothes from little-known designers and big names alike. Tucked away in a corner of the third floor is I Love SF, a second hand clothes shop. The rustic smell of old leather permeates the shop. I thought about picking up a classic leather jacket but then a cowboy hat caught hanging in the corner caught my eye. I set the hat at a rakish angle and stared at myself in the mirror. I felt just like Indiana Jones. I handed over the NT$700 and strutted confidently out of the shop.
If Ximen Ding has a reputation for being a bit seedy, it’s well-deserved. The romantically-named Hotel Baroque is typical of many that sell rooms by the hour, but romance is the last thing to be expected in their dingy and squalid rooms. Prostitution was once rampant in Ximen, and single men walking alone at night may be offered girls. Any hotel that sells by the hour is best avoided, but that’s no problem because Xiamen also has plenty of respectable places to stay. The King International Hotel at 159 Xining South Road is full of character. Although it’s clean and well-maintained, the designer seems to have used 1974 as his decorative theme. A delightfully tacky rainbow light straddles the bed, while the curtains are a wonderful shade of beige. Double rooms start at NT$1,200 per night, and that includes free internet access on the hotel’s antique computer.
With food in my belly and the bags dropped off, I set out in search of the final piece of the puzzle – a cold beer. When nobody at my accommodation seemed to know where to find a bar, I was beginning to think that the youth of Taiwan don’t like to drink. I passed a workman sleeping inside a partially renovated store, his feet poking out from behind a mountain of powered cement. Outside, his colleagues sprawled across the pavement, exhaustion on their faces, but a can of beer in their hands. I fought the temptation to join them.
Just meters from my hotel, I stumbled on a ramshackle alley, where crowds milled in and out of the shops browsing for tattoos, piercings and nail extensions. A group of uniformed school girls giggled as they flipped the pages of a grubby tattoo catalog. Inside the store, another girl of no more than eighteen buried her head in her forearm to hide from the pain of the needle. The tattooist flicked the ash from his cigarette on the floor and squinted at the work in progress. He was midway through an elaborate shoulder piece. I was intrigued as to how the tattoo would turn out, and resolved to come back later.
From the main street, there’s little to suggest that the redbrick colonial area building, only a stone’s throw from the Xiamen MRT station, is the gay capital of Taiwan. The building itself is a theater, with all the night time action taking place in the courtyard behind it. I wandered through the courtyard, taking in the tiny bars that sit shoulder to shoulder. Each bar seemed to have its own sound system, and the competing beats made for a cacophony of sound.
The first bar I tried was a place called Bear 1. I never made it to Bear 2. Sitting outside on a balmy night, I finally got my long awaited bottle of beer. It had become obvious that I was in a gay bar, so I took off the cowboy hat, but even its presence on the table drew inquisitive looks. No problem. The music was good and at NT$120, the beer was good value. I drained the beer, put the hat back on and went to a place called Chatte Boite. They have an all-you-can-drink deal on red wine on Friday’s which at NT$500 must represent one of the cheapest ways to get steaming drunk in Taipei. I passed up the deal, and had another cold beer, finally convinced that there’s more to Ximen Ding than cutesy trash and cheap clothes.