I'd come to know Yang Ren Jie as a cozy, dependable and very reasonably priced Yun-nan restaurant. It has a small, colorful dining room that's tucked in a quiet niche just off the hustle and bustle of the Tunghwa Street night market, and the crowd is a mix of young people on dates and family dinners.
Through several meals it's been good enough to become my choice for Yun-nan cooking in east Taipei. Then I got to meet the cook, and it turns out that his story is as interesting as the meals are tasty.
The 31-year-old Yang Cheng-mao (楊承茂) was born on Yang Ren Street, which is both the restaurant's namesake and a border crossing between China and Myanmar. The street name refers to the British, who occupied it with businesses when Burma was still under their colonial rule. Yang is ethnically Kachin, a Tibeto-Burman minority of about 2 million and one of Myanmar's many ethnic groups to form its own militia and oppose the ruling junta government.
When he was 16 he was conscripted into the Kachin Independence Army and spent the next three years in the jungle mountains of northern Myanmar armed with an AK-47, occasionally skirmishing with government forces. In his glimpses of fighting, "government troops would always send civilians in front of them, because they knew we wouldn't shoot them," he recalls.
When he was 20, an uncle who had served in the KMT army brought him into Taiwan, where he's since become naturalized and done his second round of compulsory military service. About all this he has no regrets. Now he likes to go mountain biking in Wulai every Monday.
In 1997 Yang was hired at Thai Town (
Address: No. 10, Lane 39, Tunghwa St, Taipei (台北市通化街39巷10號)
Open: 12pm to 3pm and 6pm to 10pm
Average meal: NT$250
Details: Credit cards not accepted; Chinese menu only
Two people will be extremely satisfied with the small set, which includes four dishes, a soup, rice, a glass of iced tea and dessert for NT$500. The four person set includes six dishes and a soup with the same trappings for only NT$900. Similar meals at Thai Town would cost three or four times as much.