The Taipei City Government will relocate more than 500 food stalls from the Shilin (士林) Night Market food court back to their original building in November when an extensive renovation of the original market complex is completed. Ninety-four of those stalls will be moving into the basement.
Moving part of the night market, a popular tourist destination, into the basement has upset some vendors, who are worried about how their businesses will succeed in the new location. Some of them have refused to cooperate with the city government on the move. In an online protest, thousands of Internet users voiced their opposition in comments on Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin’s (郝龍斌) Facebook page.
Hau and his team have made no response to the protests. Instead, the mayor said the Market Administration Office would consult with the vendors, while at the same time telling the officials to “make sure that the relocation is on schedule.” The city government plans to tear down the current food court to construct a contemporary art center.
The night market renovation project began in 2002 when the city government sought to improve the sanitary conditions and structure of the 100-year-old market. Food stalls were moved to their current site across the street from Jiantan MRT Station while their old home was being restored, at a cost of more than NT$630 million (US$20 million).
For many, the Shilin Night Market project bears striking similarities to the 2001 renovation of Jian-cheng Circle. The modernization of the circle was initiated by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) during his term as Taipei mayor. The old structure was replaced with a two-story cylindrical glass building and reopened in 2003 with about 20 food stalls. Just three years later it closed due to slow business.
When Ma’s team decided to demolish the city landmark, its vendors opposed the idea of moving into a brand new building, fearing that the natural charm of the market would be stripped away in a modern setting. They also complained about the building’s maze-like design and poor ventilation system, which they said created an uninviting atmosphere for the visitors.
For Ma and city officials, however, eating traditional snacks on the bustling streets is not a pleasant dining experience. So, forcing their own opinions onto the public, they insisted that an air-conditioned food court with better sanitary conditions would be more attractive to visitors.
The two projects reflect city officials’ ignorance about night market culture. Their failure to heed the concerns of the vendors smacks of excessive confidence — even arrogance.
Ma blamed the problems of the renovated Jian-cheng Circle on the vendors for failing to adapt their business models. He did not realize that it was his lack of respect for grassroots culture that caused the market to fail.
Hau is no better. Although the Shilin Night Market renovation project was initiated under Ma, Hau has made little effort to change the floor design despite concerns that an underground location would not be appealing.
It is true that many night markets, including the famous ones, are not entirely sanitary. However, eating stinky tofu or pig’s blood cake while wandering through the crowded streets can be far more fun than sitting in a fancy — or not so fancy — restaurant.