Taiwanese Arts and Crafts: A Mix of Traditional and Modern

My family’s summer trip to Taiwan¬†was rather short, so we tried to squeeze in as much as possible. We visited tourist sites, of course, as I mentioned last week. But I also took advantage of every opportunity to drag my reluctant kids to see some of the local Taiwanese arts-and-crafts-related shops and markets. They didn’t always like it, but that’s what happens when your mom is a textile artist and believes the arts to be an expression of local history and culture… Perhaps they will appreciate it one day (or not!).

There is an interesting, exciting, vibrant mix of traditional and modern arts and crafts in Taiwan. We got to see but a small sample of it. I am sure there are many other interesting things we didn’t get to. If you know of any, please feel free to add them in the comments!

Traditional Crafts

Traditional Chinese arts are very much alive in Formosa, and are evident everywhere. In museums, temples, shops, markets and more. I will not discuss the exquisite displays in museums, or the more common ones in temples or architecture. Instead, I’ll talk a little about the workshops, shops and markets we encountered.

While walking down Dihua St. in Taipei, for example, we came across a small traditional paper lantern store. The Lao Mian Cheng Lantern Shop has been operating since 1915!

We saw many small carving stores, where you could have your name carved on a chop, for example. But the most impressive display of carvings we encountered was at the pricey, upscale jade carving store on top of Taipei 101. Every visitor to the building has to exit through this lavish tourist trap:

In Tainan, the center for traditional crafts, we accidentally found a wood-carving workshop while walking around town. I believe it produces furniture for temples:

We also hiked a really long time in blazing heat in search of a Chinese embroidery store I read about in a guidebook. The Kuang Tsai Embroidery Shop is owned by Mr. Lin, one of the last remaining silk embroidery masters in Tainan. It ended up being so unremarkable from the outside, that we nearly missed it!

The owner was very nice, though, and let me observe his employees at work and also photograph them:

This is some of their finished work:

Luckily, there was a boutique coffee shop right next door, with air conditioning, ice-cream treats and an English-speaking owner to compensate my kids for the hike ūüôā

Modern Crafts

After visiting the Chiang Kai-shek memorial, we stumbled upon the nearby National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute. This interesting round building is part artist studios, part craft museum, and part gift store. When we visited, the second floor featured an exhibition of modern bamboo art called “Bamboo Traces”, which was quite impressive:

The store on the first floor includes both traditional and modern items at a wide range of prices, and is therefore a great place to look for gifts. Another good place to check out is Taiwan Handicraft promotion Center.

There is also a vibrant and growing community of modern artists and crafts people in Taiwan. In Taipei, many rundown old neighborhoods are gentrifying, filling up with new boutiques and crafts markets. We visited a few of them, but unfortunately couldn’t see all. Some of the places we did visit include Dihua St., which has a few interesting shops; an artisan market right across the street from the Flower Market (that for some reason doesn’t appear in any guidebook);¬†Red House in Ximending; and¬†Songshan Culture and Creative park. In Tainan, the 1930’s Japanese-built Hayashi Department Store now features a host of contemporary artisan boutiques.

Taiwanese Aboriginal Crafts

One thing that surprised me on this trip was the widespread display of Taiwanese aboriginal culture. When I lived in Taiwan nearly a quarter-century ago, the majority of Han Chinese hardly ever mentioned the native aboriginals. In the rare times they did discuss them, it was with much disesteem. Taiwanese aboriginals were considered backwards, uncivilized. Now, however, aboriginal culture is celebrated everywhere in Taiwan. When we went to get breakfast at the famous breakfast resturant Fu Hang Soymilk, for example, we stumbled upon a stall selling aboriginal crafts at the small, run-down and smelly Huashan Market on the bottom floor of the building. When we went into the National Museum of History right near the above-mentioned National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute, we discovered an entire floor with a beautiful display of aboriginal artifacts, including many gorgeous textiles:

Then there is the new  Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines across the street from the famed National Palace Museum. This small-yet-pleasant museum has illuminating, educational signs:

Displays of raw materials and tools:

Outfits the way they were worn:

As well as many amazing textiles:

There were even examples of aboriginal bags!

Taroko Gorge has a little museum dedicated to local aboriginals, which includes displays of houses and costumes, among other things:

There are even¬†Taiwanese aboriginal theme parks (which we didn’t visit), as well as tourist traps selling aboriginal crafts in villages around Sun Moon Lake (where many aboriginal tribes still live).

I enjoyed learning about the aboriginal culture, and seeing it being, finally, integrated into the general story of Taiwan (even if, at times, in a commercialized way). And I was most impressed with the detail and beauty of the aboriginal textiles!

Taipei With Kids: Suggested Family Activities in the Capital of Taiwan

Now that school is finally in session, summer is beginning to feel very far away. Before it’s memory fades completely, I wanted to write a post (or two!) about my family’s trip to Taiwan. I want to begin with some suggestions for things to see and do in the capital of Taiwan, just in case you find yourself in Taipei with kids and some free time ūüôā

Important: when booking accommodations, make sure the place you will be staying at has working air conditioning!

Essential Things to Take on a Summer Trip to Taipei

Summer in Taipei is HOT, humid and often rainy. You can know all of this in advance, yet still not be prepared for the wave of heat and humidity that will engulf you the minute you get off the plane (or out of the air-conditioned airport).

Things you need to pack:

  • Hot-weather cloths. I recommend mostly tank tops and sleeveless clothing. Loose-fitting is a plus. Anything too tight will stick to your body. Even a t-shirt will feel like too much!
  • Water-proof sandals (your feet will get wet).
  • An umbrella
  • A rain jacket (optional).
  • A small, preferably waterproof bag to carry essentials as you walk around the city.
  • A spray water bottle, to both keep you hydrated and cool yourself with.

Kid-Friendly Sights

Must See Sights:

The National Palace Museum. If you have only a few hours in the city, this is the one most important place to go to. The Palace Museum contains a vast collection of treasures from the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. The Nationalists brought the collection with them after they lost the civil war in 1949.

There is a lot to see: paintings, porcelain, bronze and much more. You will need many hours to see everything, but your kids might lose interest long before you do. So it might be worth while to chose which exhibitions you want to see first, just in case… The museum has brochures, which tell you what the most popular items are. Go early if you want to see them up close. The exhibition halls do¬†get crowded! And don’t miss the jade cabbage, though I still don’t understand why it’s so popular:

Some exhibitions are kid-friendly. We spent way too much time at the digital painting- manipulation exhibit, by far the least impressive of them all. But it had screens, and my kids got to paint horses! There is also a small kid-playing area in the basement.

If you’re done with the Palace Museum and still have time, cross the road to the opposite Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines. It’s a lot smaller, but interesting, low key and informative.

Chiang Kaishek Memorial. This is another place any local host will take you to. Soak in the vastness of the space and grandness of the architecture–it is meant to impress.

And if you’re there at the right time, your kids might enjoy seeing the change of guard at Chiang’s statue.

Taipei 101. This is the tallest building in Taiwan, and one of the tallest in the world. You can see it from almost anywhere in the city. Once inside, you can go to an observation deck on the top, and see the damper that helps keeps it stable even during typhoons. If you want, you can mail a postcard from the top. And you have to leave through a huge store full of incredible (and incredibly expensive!) jade carvings. For some reason, my kids loved this building. I think it’s actually the only thing my son remembers from Taipei!

A great place to take kids to is the Taipei Zoo. We did not expect much of the zoo, and it pleasantly surprised us. In fact, it is one of the nicest zoos I’ve been to (and I’ve been to a whole lot!). It has a few pandas, held in an indoor, air-conditioned enclosure:

But the other, open-air pans were a lot more interesting, I think. I enjoyed the tropical vegetation as well. It felt like a combination of a zoo and a botanical garden.

If you go there, make sure to take the gondola. The view from above is magnificent, and your kids will love it!

Must Experience Sights:

Temples:

You can’t be in Taipei without visiting a few temples. One of the more famous ones is the Buddhist Lungshan Temple. The structure you see now is a mid-twentieth century rebuild.

You cannot visit this temple without going to the nearby Snake Alley. This night market really does sell snakes (to eat!). We didn’t buy any, but seeing them for sale left a huge impression on my children.

Many other temples and shrines dot the city, both big and small. Go into some of them and look around. Smell the incense. Observe people worship. Listen to the sounds. With time, you might start distinguishing between Buddhist and Confucian temples.

Markets:

Night Markets. For a genuine Taipei experience make sure to visit a few of its bustling night markets. These will utilize all your senses: there is a lot to see, hear, feel and smell! Stop by some stalls and get local street food. It’s likely to be nothing like anything you’ve had before. If you’re brave, try the stinky tofu!

If you can be in Taipei for a weekend, the weekend Flower Market is a must. Operating in a parking lot under an elevated road, this is a heaven for plant lovers.

It has a vast array of tropical plants of all kinds. Bonsai pots of all sizes, bamboo arrangements, and amazing orchids that will take your breath away!

Once you’re done with the flower market, go visit the nearby Jade Market. This market, too, is open only on weekends, and holds a big selection of trinkets, jade, beads, antiques and other interesting curiosities. Bargaining is expected.

Food!

Taipei has an amazing array of food of all kinds. Taste as much of it as you can! Try the street food, go to different kinds of restaurants, both cheap and more expensive. Experience different kinds of cuisines.

For special treats, try the following two places recommended separately by two of our Taiwanese friends, Siyen and Peisun. The first is a great breakfast place called Fu Hang Soymilk. It offers simple but delicious breakfast staples like fried dough sticks, soy milk and shaobing. When we went there, the line was already very long at 6:30 am, but it did move relatively quickly. Don’t go on your first day! You’ll appreciate the place a lot more if you have other breakfast restaurants to compare it to.

For lunch, try Din Tai Fung, considered the best dumpling restaurant in Taipei. We waited in almost one-hundred degrees for over seventy minutes to get in. The dumplings were good. My kids still fantasize about the chocolate ones!

They also have a branch in Taipei 101, although we didn’t try it.

If you still have time in Taipei, there is yet more to see.

Lesser Sights:

There are many small museums in the city, that can keep kids happy for a while. We enjoyed learning how to make paper at the Paper Museum.

The Ama Museum, dedicated to comfort women, was more somber but educational. The attached cafe was very pleasant, too.

The museum is located on Dihua St,, an interesting place in as of itself. The street, which has some old architecture and a fun mix of shops (some traditional, some new and fancy), is a great place to engage in another nice Taipei activity: strolling and shopping. The street has, among other things, a paper lanterns store that we enjoyed, and a bamboo-product store where we were unable to resist temptation.

Oh, and the best part for the fabric lovers among you (sorry, I just have to put this in!): at the end of the street there is the ginormous Yongle Fabric Market, an absolute heaven for sewers of all kinds. It truly has anything you can think of. The vastness of it completely overwhelmed me!

Finally, If You Have Time to Leave Taipei:

Taroko Gorge is beautiful, and offers hiking trails for all difficulty levels.

Xitou Nature Recreation Area has some amazing bamboo forests, as well as other kinds of vegetation. It attracts many local tourists, and offers shops and restaurants in addition to nature hikes.