Intellectualproperties

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 April, 2010, 12:00am

The bookstores are full. Children and teenagers sit cross-legged on the floor, engrossed in colourful books and manga. Adults lean against shelves, their noses in books. A chef in a soiled white jacket is grabbing a few minutes of reading time before dinner service begins.

From the bookstores I head to a cafe and, by my second espresso, I've put my finger on what makes Taipei feel different to other Chinese cities I've visited. Taipei is bookish and intellectual in a way that is reminiscent of New York or Paris. Al-fresco cafes and good bookstores have bestowed an erudite air on the city.

Most weekend visitors to the city are drawn by the food and the museums. But there's an alternative Taipei weekend, one during which you'll see little but have the wonderful feeling of squandering hours in places designed for just that purpose. There are streets here that are meant for wandering down, to poke your nose into shops that sell fantastic things you have no intention of buying. The feeling is strong when you walk through the residential areas of old Taipei, where the lingering influence of Japan's occupation is most evident.

If sitting is your thing, you might like to look for places such as Bunny Listens to the Music on Qingtian Street, at the intersection of two residential thoroughfares that are just busy enough to support a session of people-watching from its leafy patio. Inside, the cafe is decorated in pop-culture themes from the 1960s and 70s. Alternatively, spend an hour sipping coffee at Cafe Musee, in Tamshui Town. You won't need a book here; the wall is rich with photographs and paintings to study - and you might meet one of the National Taiwan University of Arts students who show their work here.

It's hard to find another Chinese city where coffee is such a part of the culture as it is in Taipei. Taiwan has been growing coffee for several centuries but much of the cafe culture goes back to Japanese rule (1895 to 1945). In the beginning, the occupiers operated most of the coffee houses but then Taiwanese students began to return from overseas study with a taste for Western culture. They started opening their own coffee houses, in which Western pleasures were to be found, from music to drinks.

Coffee houses gained a reputation as being meeting places for writers, artists and intellectuals. Cafes became safe houses for those who opposed Japanese rule, further enhancing their image as places in which to argue politics and literature. In the 70s, during Taiwan's export boom, the growing middle class created an expanding market for coffee and places in which to drink it.

Astoria Cafe, on Wuchang Street, was founded by Russian ?migr?s, who moved to Taipei from Shanghai, where they had been in exile following the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Astoria has been a favourite of the literati throughout its 60 years. In the 50s, Pai Hsien-yung, author of Tales of Taipei Characters, spent many an hour writing in the cafe's cramped booths. In 2008, writer Chen Ruoxi launched her autobiography at the Astoria.

If you must shop, do it with cerebral intent and walk down Chongqing South Road. Booksellers are squeezed in cheek by jowl along what is also known as Bookstore Street. If your written Chinese is not up to scratch, stop at Apex Bookstore, which has shelves of American textbooks and a good selection of non-fiction.

Bookstore Street is good for browsing but it's the city's chain of Eslite Bookstores that will help you the most in wasting your afternoon. At night, the Dunhua branch, which is open 24 hours a day, becomes part pick-up joint, part insomniac central, but it's still all about the books. The Ximending branch is slightly smaller but upstairs is a cafe popular enough to have teenagers lined up, clutching a laptop to their chest, waiting for their cappuccino and free Wi-fi.

By sundown, I'm jacked up on caffeine and I've had my fill of orderly intellectual pursuit. Thankfully, the spirit of Taipei can also be found in its nightlife and a burgeoning indie music scene. After a few hours in dank basement club The Wall, I head for a more leisurely drink at Riverside, where musicians party when their gigs have ended.

If it all becomes too much, I'll just go back to my hotel and read a book.