11 Analysis by Daniel Li
The importance of Taiwanese night markets and reason for their popularity locally and globally.
The Night markets of Taiwan are known to be a must-see attraction for tourists when visiting as it is unique in nature when compared to other countries. Visiting these markets allow foreigners to experience and see the local culture in an authentic manner and this is what makes them so unique and special. Night markets have become ingrained as a fundamental part of Taiwanese culture and society since they provide rich social activities and important employment opportunities to the local population. The history, creation, and popularization of the night markets are important to understand how it became a staple of Taiwanese culture and economy.
The first thing that must be understood is that night markets are popular in many Asian cultures especially those in south-east Asia such as China which is important to Taiwanese night markets. After World War 2, China would go through a period of civil war where the end result would be the loss of the KMT (Kuomintang) and the rise of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) causing the KMT to retreat and take over the island of Taiwan establishing the ROC (Republic of China) and a different form of government than mainland China. This means that even though China and Taiwan are under different forms of rule and government, they share the same or very similar cultures and traditions such as foods, holidays, religion and night markets. These similarities and influences can be easily found in modern day Taiwan just from the famous dishes served at street stalls in the night markets. In this way, just as night markets have existed in China for a very long time, the first known night market in Taiwan started in 1899 though they would not become popularized and grow until after the KMT left to Taiwan.
These night markets would start out as a group of food stalls or hole in the wall restaurants around street corners or nearby religious temples. They would be a popular place for migrant workers and locals to eat delicious dishes at a reasonable price while also being a place for socialization. The markets would grow in size over time as the economic situation in Taiwan grew and more night markets would begin to pop up all over the country. Taipei being the capital of Taiwan has some of the most famous night markets in Taiwan while also being one of the cities with the most markets. Taiwan has around seventy-night markets around the country while thirty of them are located in and around Taipei. One of the reasons for such large popularity and rapid growth of this industry is due to its ability to provide a large number of employment opportunity to the local population. Known as the “night market army” they represent a large portion of Taiwan’s labor force. In 2013, it is estimated that there were upwards three hundred and fifteen thousand street stalls in Taiwan employing over half a million people which is over 2% of Taiwan’s population and over 3% of the active labor force. The most famous market and largest night market is the Shilin Night Market, it has five hundred and thirty-nine stalls along with other food courts and street side attractions. The night markets of Taiwan have not only brought a great number of employment opportunities but also great economic benefit to the city itself from its daily transactions. While it is hard to come up with an exact number as most vendors are unwilling to reveal their income amounts, it is estimated that on average a vendor can make around $1130 USD a month though it is believed they make much more than this. In a study done in 1991, it showed that many vendors especially the ones which sold food were earning around $3200 USD per month. In 2008, street vendors generated about $16 billion USD in revenue which accounted for around 4% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) that year. Overall, not only have street markets helped reduce unemployment for the population, it also contributed greatly to the economic growth of the country.
Another reason for its popularity and fame worldwide is the food culture and specialties made famous by these night markets. Many of these dishes are foods that originated in China after having been brought over by the KMT and popularized by the street stalls. Examples of this would be the beef noodle soup which originated in China and was brought over to Taiwan once the KMT fled and became a staple of night market food vendors and restaurants. The famous stinky tofu known to be very foul smelling on the outside but tasty once its eaten is sold at most night markets was also invented in China but popularized by Taiwan later on. The oyster omelet is a dish which can be seen at most food stalls in the markets as its seafood made from oysters in Taiwan. Taiwanese fried chicken made to be bite sized and with a variety of different flavors to eat as you explore the night market. Soy sauce braised foods are often sold which are just the normal chicken, egg, tofu but braised in soy sauce to give it its flavor. Fried sweet potato balls are also a common form of sweet dessert coming in many different flavors. Finally, the bubble tea or milk tea which is known and sold all over the world is not only a famous drink in Taiwanese night markets but was also invented and created in Taiwan. The bubble milk tea was said to be invented in the late nineteen eighties but no one can be certain who did it as there are many disputing claims as to who first put tapioca pearls into milk tea. Regardless, bubble tea would become famous in Taiwan first before spreading to the U.S in the nineteen nineties and go viral.
As the night markets expanded and Taiwan grew, night markets and its street vendors would also expand their business into more than just food. In the nineteen sixties; toys, garments and other accessories would start to be sold in the markets. In the nineteen seventies; handicrafts, Chinese medicine and international goods would make an appearance in the markets. In the nineteen eighties, night markets would begin to have gift shops and high-quality cloths/shoes along with many vendors and festivities bringing it to how it is in the modern day. Night markets became a popular and common place for the locals of each city to meet, hangout, socialize, and find something to eat. This lively night life of Taiwan became ingrained in its popular culture becoming a staple of this nation’s identity. Now, it is not uncommon to see high quality products being sold in night markets or famous brands selling their shoes or cloths. The increase in the products being sold, the wonderful food and the lively night life brought by the night markets would eventually attract global attention bringing in many tourists and a new avenue of income from this newfound publicity.
While there are many different night markets in Taiwan, there are a few which are more well known and visited by foreigners for various reasons. The first would be the Shilin Night Market, this its known as both the first Taiwanese night market but also the biggest night market. Next there is the Raohe Night Market. The Raohe Night Market is known to extend down a single street and is most well known for its variety and choice of foods available. Then there is the Huaxi Night market or otherwise known as Snake Alley Night Market which is very well known for its snake-based products and food. The Ningxia Night Market while smaller than the others mentioned, can still be found to have everything the others do and also be a local favorite to visit. These are only a few of the more well known night markets but there are many more each with their own quirks and specialties, but all of them share the same similarity of being a melting pot of culture and tradition. The Taiwanese night markets are a place for locals to have fun, socialize and eat great food in a festive mood while also being a great boost to the economy and labor market for the surrounding areas. It has brought global attention and increased the tourism in the country helping Taiwan benefit by spreading its culture globally. Having started as small street stalls and vendors after World War 2, these night markets have become an immovable part of Taiwanese life and culture.
About Ramsay LewisRamsay Lewis is a freelance editor, and More posts by Ramsay >>. “9 Taiwanese Night Market Foods That You Absolutely Have to Try.” The Pimsleur Language Blog, 2 Aug. 2021, https://blog.pimsleur.com/2021/07/29/night-market-foods-taiwan/.
Editors, dataSpring. “A Cultural Icon: Taiwan’s Night Market: Eye on Asia.” DataSpring Inc., 3 Feb. 2022, https://www.d8aspring.com/eye-on-asia/a-cultural-icon-taiwans-night-market.
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