Fri, Feb 09, 2007 - Page 14 News List

Freeloaders' paradise

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Many visitors graze their way along Dihua Street without spending a dollar.


The area around Dihua Street (迪化街) in the weeks before the Lunar New Year holiday finds shoppers and hawkers buying and selling a smorgasbord of locally produced and imported goods. The tradition dates back more than 150 years when a businessman named Lin Lan-tien began trading locally produced rice, tea and camphor with Chinese merchants. As his business began to boom, so did the area.

"People aren't buying anymore. At least not as much as they used to," said Sung Shuenn-yih (宋順益), Chairman of the New Year Big Street Shopping Festival Management Association (年貨大街管理委員會), the organization that is responsible for cleaning, security and transportation around Dihua Street."

According to Sung, the last few years have seen the number of visitors to Dihua Street grow but the volume of goods sold diminish. "Now, it's as much a tourist destination as it is a place for people to buy stuff for Lunar New Year."

Stalls are vacant. If business is going to the dogs, visitors to the street continue to sample like pigs. From dried fish, meat, vegetables, fruit and fungus to soups, broths, instant tea, candy and coffee, most products are either cut, chopped or ground and placed on display as samples.

But if taste testing is a staple part of a trip to Dihua Street at this time of year, purchasing the multitude of goodies on offer still remains an important part of the ritual leading up to Chinese New Year.

"I bring my family here every year to stock up on food for the holiday," says a customer surnamed Gao, whose two young children were loaded up with bags filled with candy, dried fish and packets of tea. The Taoyuan resident made the trip to Taipei to take in the atmosphere and bargain hunt. "The prices here are cheaper than [regular] stores and we can try all kinds of food," he said.

More information:

What: Lunar New Year Holiday shopping on Dihua Street (迪化街)

When: Daily from 9am to midnight. Until Feb. 16

How to get there: Traffic restrictions are in effect, leaving little alternative to public transportation. The easiest way to get to Dihua Street is by MRT to Shuanglian station. From Exit 2, walk west down Minsheng West Road (15 minutes)

Shoppers are attracted to Dihua Street because of all the free samples and low prices. Consequently, profit margins are squeezed.

So why do shopkeepers continue to do it? "It's a tradition. People have come to expect it," Ke Ya-juan (柯雅娟) said as she diced white nougat for customers. "If we [didn't offer samples], people might not come."

If proprietors aren't raking in as much money as before, the busy season is still a lucrative time for the multitude of students working the stalls.

"I work here from 9am until 11pm for the two-week period," said Zhan Cai-ying (詹采穎), a 22 year-old college student. "For this I'll get paid between NT$15,000 and NT$20,000."

And what does she plan to do with this small fortune? "Most of it will go to paying for school, but I plan to spend some of it here buying treats for my family."

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