Fri, Jan 28, 2005 - Page 13 News List

Dihua bustles during Chinese New Year

Shoppers buy traditional snacks while vendors cash in at Taipei's Dadaocheng District around this time of year

By Diana Freundl  /  STAFF REPORTER

Dihua Street is Taipei's center for buying traditional Chinese New Year's goods at this time of year.

PHOTOS: GEORGE TSORNG, TAIPEI TIMES

Dihua is a relatively quiet street lined with textile stores and traditional pharmacies. That is, until two weeks before the Lunar New Year when local vendors spill out of their storefronts to set up shop on the walkway.

This narrow street, located near the Danshui River in Taipei's Dadaocheng District, turns into a sea of shoppers, merchants and bins packed with an array of savory and sweet holiday snacks. The traditional market is a popular destination for Taipei residents to do their New Year shopping and provides a viable option for temporary employment.

Zheng You-cheng (鄭有呈) is a seasonal employee at a vendor selling dried fish. Working shifts that begin at 9am and don't end until midnight, Zheng said the job is both interesting and tiring.

"The days are long and standing for 12 or more hours is hard work. But I like this job because I meet different people. I can even practice my English with foreigners."

Like Zheng, most store employees are students working during their winter vacations and earn NT$80 to NT$100 per hour. Although it sounds low, the wage is reasonable compared with minimum wages paid in a retail service industry job, which average at NT$70 per hour.

From a consumer's perspective, the area provides a one-stop shop for all New Year necessities. The goods range from candy, nuts, dried fish, fruit and vegetables to Chinese herbs and teas and even decorations. Most customers flock to Dihua Street to shop, yet the traditional southern Fujan-style architecture, red lanterns and foodstuffs have also made it a tourist attraction. Guided tours organized by expatriate clubs bring visitors to the market, and this year Taipei European School got into the spirit by setting up its own mini Dihua Street to teach students about the significance of the holiday market and the history of the street itself.

During the mid-1800s, goods from China would arrive by ship at the Dadaocheng port in Taiwan. Imported silk, medicine and artwork would be traded for local rice, sugar and produce. Dihua Street's proximity to the port made it the sensible location to sell the imported goods, so it became the busiest market in Taiwan.

Little trading takes place there now, but the history is still apparent. When looking down Minsheng West Road towards Danshui River, one of the original four stone gateways to the city is visible. The first pharmacy and one of the oldest buildings on Dihua, Sheng Ji (生記藥行), is still in operation after nearly a century.

Considering medicine is not a holiday necessity, shops like Sheng Ji do not always benefit from the increase of holiday shoppers, said its proprietor Huang Ming-wo (黃明我). In fact driving restrictions and pedestrian congestion he explained, cause some business' sales to decline during the lead up to the Lunar New Year holiday. To minimize profit loss, however, most shops will either join the masses in selling festive treats or rent out their storefront space during the two weeks for NT$120,000 to NT$200,000.

Mr Wong (翁先生), who owns an air conditioner repair shop, has been selling candy in large bins outside his store for 17 years. On a good day he takes in NT$25,000, an average earning among retailers but a leap from the few thousand he makes per day during the rest of the year.

Although it was a little early to estimate how business would fare on the official opening last Tuesday, many shop attendants said they were witnessing a higher turnout than in the previous two years.

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