First Dispatch From Zhongli

The grand entrance to Renhai Temple 仁海宮
The grand entrance to Renhai Temple in Zhongli.

Last week I moved from Taipei to Zhongli, a mid-sized city of approximately half a million1 about 45 minutes down the Western Line 西部幹線 in the heart of Taoyuan. I have been all around the island but haven’t explored much of what you might call the “middle north”, the strongly Hakka-influenced area stretching from the rugged borders of New Taipei south to Taichung that includes Taoyuan, Hsinchu, and Miaoli. Perhaps by staying here awhile I will find opportunities to explore more of this part of Taiwan and fill in some blank spots on my personal map.

A rundown building near Zhongli Station
It didn’t take much to find the rundown entertainment complex by the train station. I’ll return to take better photos sometime later on.

Moving here was a bit of a random decision but not completely without reason. I cast a wide net on 591, the most popular Taiwanese rental site, and with some help from a local friend managed to find a decent short-term apartment mere minutes from Zhongli Station 中壢車站. It’s month-to-month so I am not obligated to stay if I don’t end up liking it—but I happen to enjoy living in smaller, more lively parts of Taiwan. Taipei is great and all but I sometimes find myself somewhat bored by its relatively sterile modernity and—as a cyclist—daunted by its immense scale. Going south2 means I am giving up immediate access to westernized nightlife, international culture, and a much larger and more vibrant social scene in exchange for a more authentic experience at half the price. This won’t be the first time I’ve accepted such a deal, having previously moved to Tainan and later Changhua City in 2014.

Pet civet at Zhongyuan Night Market
Just some guy taking his pet civet out for a walk at Zhongyuan Night Market.

After signing the rental agreement I made one round trip by train to drop off some stuff before cycling the entire way, a good 50 kilometer ride up the Dahan River 大漢溪 to the Taoyuan Plateau 桃園台地 by nightfall. I stopped off for small eats at Xìngrén Garden Night Market 興仁花園夜市, a great find by fellow Canadian blogger (and Zhongli resident) Josh Ellis, before slogging the rest of the way through the grim industrial sprawl that rings my new place of residence. (In case you’re curious I posted photos from this ride to Facebook.)

Bantiao in Zhongli
Bantiao, a Hakka dish.
Delicious youth
The breakfast hanbao at Minor Burger.
Fresh tangbao at Zhongyuan Night Market
Fresh soup dumplings at Zhongyuan Night Market.
Bullshit free zone
A hopeful sign at Zhongli Night Market.

One thing I immediately noticed about Zhongli is the vaguely more multicultural vibe. There is a large Hakka minority in the area—easily detected by the number of Hakka restaurants around—as well as many expats and immigrants from Southeast Asia—a group generally (but rather insensitively) referred to as wàiláo 外勞 (literally “foreign worker”). Walking around the area by the train station is like taking a step into another country entirely, a rare experience in Taiwan.

24 hour dessert shop in Zhongli
24 hour dessert shop.
Canadian dentist in Zhongli
A Canadian dentist?
Disco pub KTV
One of countless KTVs around this part of Zhongli.

The next thing I noticed is how sleazy the city is after dark. Zhongli has a rather well-deserved reputation for being a bit rough around the edges, to put it lightly. After riding around at night I can say that I’ve hardly ever seen another place in Taiwan outside of the seedy port town of Keelung that embraces vice and iniquity to such a degree3. I wonder if it is the proximity to the international airport that fuels this industry—for I can’t imagine domestic demand keeping up with the sheer number of KTVs, hostess clubs, and 999 NT massage parlours that punctuate the urban landscape. The fact that some of these establishments exclusively feature Japanese signage suggests that this hunch is probably on the money.

Zhongli Night Market 中壢夜市
Zhongli Night Market from the pedestrian overpass.
Insane traffic at Zhongyuan Night Market
Insane traffic at Zhongyuan Night Market outside the university in southeast Zhongli.

Finally, the night markets. Apart from the aforementioned Xingren (which is actually out in Bade) there are two solid options around here: the eponymous Zhongli Night Market 中壢夜市 (already well-covered by Josh, sparing me any need to bring a camera around) and the more hip and fashionable Zhongyuan Night Market 中原夜市 by the big university campus in the southeastern part of town. Both have their charms and I’m sure I will visit both on many nights to come.

The view from Zhongli
A nice view of the park.

I will save further observations and impressions for future posts. I already have a number of projects in the works based on my preliminary experiences here—which should explain the somewhat scattered assortment of photos that accompanies this first dispatch from Zhongli. Update: check out scenes from everyday life in Zhongli for much more!

  1. Zhongli proper has a population of 380,000 but almost half of the urban center surrounding the train station is technically located in neighbouring Pingzhen. Add the population of these two districts together and the total surpasses half a million. Both districts are, in turn, part of the greater Taoyuan metropolitan area, with a total population of slightly more than two million. 
  2. “Going south” in Taiwan is a state of mind. Technically it is the sluggish Zhuóshuǐ 濁水溪 that cleaves the island into north and south—but in some sense “southern Taiwan” begins at Yonghe, the densely populated part of New Taipei immediately south of the most westernized districts of Taipei. In case it’s not obvious, this is a bit of a joke—but a joke with a grain of truth to it. 
  3. To put things in perspective: no place in Taiwan is anywhere near as seedy as Bangkok or even Hong Kong for that matter. Zhongli is only rough around the edges by Taiwanese standards. 

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