Now that the Shilin Night Market has been turned into an almost sanitized theme-park version of itself, the Taipei City Government has set its eyes on the Shida Night Market in the warren of small alleys behind National Taiwan Normal University. It wants to turn the area into what it calls a “college town.”
It has been years since Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) was at school, so someone should tell him that there already is a thriving college town in the area, one that has existed for decades, and that it’s growing popularity is a sign that businesses in the area are doing something right. What the vendors do need to improve on, however, is being better neighbors to their non-university residents and there are several ways in which city authorities can help with this, without resorting to brickbats.
The mayor first created waves when he said in November last year that the market area would not be allowed to expand because of complaints from and a demonstration on Oct. 26 by residents fed up with the trash and noise. At the time, the city government said it had received complaints about 506 of the 647 registered businesses in the night market.
That is a lot of complaints, but the city’s reaction has been to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Earlier this month, city authorities began a crackdown on vendors, targeting both illegal and legal ones. About 75 vendors have received notices saying that they are violating regulations regarding signage, roadside encroachment or other infractions, and if they don’t clean up their act, they risk being evicted.
Part of the problem is that the “official” night market area encompasses a residential zone and that land-use regulations bar the use of roads less than 8m wide in residential zones for commercial purposes, but most of the alleys in that area barely exceed 8m. Nothing can be done to widen those pathways, so residents (and their cars and motorcycles) and businesses will have to learn to coexist.
Another part of the problem has been the expansion in the number of restaurants, drink shops and take-away places in the area — as opposed to eyeglass shops, bookshops and stationery stores — all of which help draw an ever increasing number of people to dine in the area, thereby boosting revenues (and taxable income), but also creating problems with odors, noise and trash.
Requiring kitchen and/or food-stall cooking areas to be properly ventilated would go a long way toward resolving some of the odor complaints. Installing more public trashcans and having more frequent trash pick-ups would go a long way toward eliminating the trash problem. As with other night markets, or city streets in general, you can walk a long way before spotting a trash can. A jokester once remarked that there are more 7-Elevens and other convenience stores in Taipei than there are trash cans.
Night markets are a major tourism draw for Taiwan in general and Taipei in particular, even outranking places like Taipei 101 and the National Palace Museum in surveys. To keep people coming, you need to have the right mix of vendors and crowds, not a gentrified place changed beyond recognition.
Taipei authorities already have a mixed reputation when it comes to “revitalizing” markets, cleaning them up only to see them lose the features that made them charming.