Sunday, March 26, 2017

Taipei's Little Burma

New York and London have multiple ethnic enclaves, but while it’s likely true that Tianmu (天母) has a higher proportion of Western expatriates than other parts of Greater Taipei, Taiwan’s capital has perhaps just one true immigrant neighborhood: Little Burma in New Taipei City’s Yonghe District (新北市永和區).
It’s said between 20,000 and 40,000 people in Greater Taipei have Burmese roots. Some of them arrived as early as 1954; others came more recently to attend university in Taiwan. Almost all are of Chinese descent and many fought in KMT units which retreated to what’s now Myanmar after the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Several of those units were kept combat-ready for years at the behest of Chiang Kai-shek, who never quite gave up his dream of retaking mainland China by force. Many of the men were originally from Yunnan in China's southwest, which is why you'll see a number of restaurant signs (like the one above) offering Yunnanese dishes. Gradually, these aging soldiers and their dependents were allowed to settle in Taiwan.

Huaxin Street (華新街) is the heart of Little Burma, and I set foot there for the first time a week ago. I walked the 550m from Nanshijiao MRT Station (at the southern end of the Orange Line; leave by Exit 4 and turn right), following signs to ‘South Pacific Food Street.’ This is the local government’s mistranslation of 南洋 (which Wikipedia describes as ‘a sinocentric Chinese term for the warmer and fertile geographical region south of China, otherwise known as the 'South Sea' or Southeast Asia...’). Just after the police station on the right-hand side of the road, I found Huaxin Street on the left. Most of the buildings hereabouts are old apartment blocks. Few have more than five floors and the prosperity so obvious in central Taipei is conspicuously absent.
It being well before lunchtime, I first explored the neighbourhood market which occupies the street’s Lane 30. It’s a pretty standard market, except for a handful of vendors who label their produce in Burmese script. The lady selling this was too busy dealing with customers to answer any questions. 

In a few of these eateries, the Burmese-language bill of fare is much more prominent than the Chinese-language menu, and a lot of the Mandarin you’ll hear spoken in this neighborhood is strongly accented. Two or three early-opening places attract groups of men aged 50 and over who sit, chat, smoke and drink tea or coffee.
I’m sure that if you know where and what to order, and you’re with a group of friends, you can have an splendid feast here. Being by myself, and a first-timer, I chose at random one of the street’s halal eateries and ordered a bowl of Jinshan Noodles (金山麵), in part because I prefer broader, bantiao-style pasta. It was pretty good: A generous amount of mildly-curried chicken, hard-boiled egg and raw onion.
After that, there wasn’t time to do much except have a cup of sweet Indian milk tea in another halal restaurant...


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