Look on the bite side

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 December, 2010, 12:00am

Liuho Night Market is to the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung what Times Square is to New York or Tiananmen is to Beijing. The outdoor market, filled with stalls selling everything from snake meat to belt buckles, lights up the night a few hundred metres from the city's central railway station.

Almost every residential district in Taiwan claims some form of night market, often just 10 or 15 food stalls. But Liuho is bigger, cheaper, open longer and generally better than the rest.

In August Liuho came up tops in a poll by Taiwan internet users, who rated it best for service, food and location, prompting the Taiwan tourism bureau to start hawking the night market to foreign travellers as a must-see destination.

A panel of Taiwanese food and tourism experts later voted Liuho and Taipei's Shilin night market the island's 'most interesting'.

Unusually large crowds of 50,000 to 100,000 people visit Liuho each night. At about 5pm, visitors are already beginning to thread their way down the market's pedestrian-only street, lined on both sides by vendors. And more raucous types sometimes stay as late as 5am.

'The reason for that is that southern people are friendly and stuff here is cheap, meaning you get what you pay for,' says a beaming Ong Hsiang-ting, boss of the Doris jewellery stall in Liuho. 'Other night markets are more expensive. Besides, the city metro stops right here.'

Lin Chin-lung, a secretary in the city's economic development bureau, attributes the night market's popularity to three factors: convenient access, local cuisine and customer service, and stall operators agree.

'The foremost thing about this night market is its location,' says vendor Liao A-bu.

It is just one subway stop from the international airport and a 15-minute walk from the railway station.

Liuho's popularity dovetails with the city's ambitions to build up its cultural sector, including film and sports.

Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu is keen to shift the city from its traditional reliance on manufacturing, which is highly vulnerable to shifts in the global economy and often means more pollution.

When the night market opened some 60 years ago, locals were attracted by the cheap restaurants along the enormous city block. There was seafood and steak; local snacks would mix with more exotic fare from overseas. It brought business executives and factory workers, bar girls and students.

The Taiwanese now earn US$32,000 per capita annually, but Kaohsiung struggles harder than other cities on the island with unemployment. And the night market, where a tasty seafood dinner for two may come to just US$8, is hard to beat.

Liuho takes up a four-lane street, broad enough to let pedestrians move in two directions at once while accommodating a maze of tables that diners may share with strangers as they eat their orders from food vendors.

Under the glare of colourful neon lights, bargain hunters rummage though through racks of clothes and purses or bins filled with flashy children's toys.

But most are after the food. Seafood restaurants cluster in the Liuho neighbourhood, where customers can pick out their own fish, molluscs and crustaceans from tanks or shelves lined with shaved ice, rather than tick them on a menu.

University student Johnny Chen is regular visitor. 'My mother told me it was full of delicious foods,' he says of the night market. 'She said it brought together not only food local vendors but also some from abroad.'

Treats such as seafood porridge, sweetened red-hued fatty sausages, marinated duck and mini platters of tropical fruit often bring winding queues. Whiffs of the signature snack - stinky tofu - waft through the air as vendors plop the yellow squares into vats of boiling oil.

Such snacks bring in a stream of tourists from around Asia, and Chinese visitors have become the latest wave after Taiwan began accepting guided tour groups from the mainland in 2008.

It's hard to be a stranger here. Merchants eagerly descend on passers-by to tout their wares, talk up Kaohsiung and make small talk.

Operating 12 hours nightly, 365 days a year, Liuho offers an element of reliability that not every night market on the island can lay claim to.

Out-of-town shoppers who make a night of the market typically stay at one of about a dozen hotels located between the market and the railway station. Most charge between US$40 to US$80 per night for simple but clean rooms.

'Tourists staying in the hotels nearby find those long hours particularly convenient; so they are often full,' says Chuang Chi-chang, who heads the night market's management committee.

Kaohsiung stays dry most of the year, with cool rather than chilly winters, so it has an edge over rivals elsewhere on the island. Comparing the night markets she has visited, tourist Amanda Bievenou says: 'Kaohsiung is bigger and there's more seafood here. And Kaohsiung's winter temperature is fine, while Taipei's is cold.'

But with more than 50 large-scale night markets in Taiwan, Liuho may be hard-pressed to retain its crown; some Kaohsiung residents such as Chen are already hankering for less-crowded sites, with newer foods to sample.

'I always see the same guy selling sausages at the end of the aisle,' Chen complains.