Protected: The Pearl Of Taiwan – Day 7

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The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 6

I make a plan to travel to Jiufen in the early afternoon. I did intend to go earlier, but I ask Josh and Naomi if they’d like to meet for breakfast first. Josh hasn’t been messaging much since the murder, understandably of course. I’ve been the one asking them to meet up since (although yesterday that was to check I could actually trust them – paranoia at it’s finest) and I want to be careful to not pester them too much. Saying that, I do think it’s important to catch up regularly while we’re all in Taipei. It can potentially help the healing process of such a traumatic event.

I’m also keen to catch up with Michael and Pauline before they leave for the next stop on their cruise. I have no contact information, so I phone up their hotel in Jiufen to see if they would be willing to pass on their details. The lady on the phone doesn’t have a number to give me, but their registration form states which hotel Michael and Pauline Chapman are staying at in Taipei.

Josh sends me his location – an American diner in Ximen. I decide to walk there, headphones on and listening to The Eagles, while seeing if there is anything I can find out about Michael and Pauline online. Social media has been a valuable resource in investigating some people so far but it’s not helping me now. I type their names into a search engine instead.

The top result is a community forum on a website called ‘Joyful Over Jewels‘, a website dedicated to luxury vintage and antique jewellery. The search results indicate Pauline and Michael are members of the forum, having racked up an impressive post count. There are various discussions on different cuts and evaluations, but the couple’s main activity seems to be centred around a sub-forum discussing expensive jewellery items around the world. Their history, value and movement are all analysed in depth by the members frequenting this sub-forum. As I read, I recall the couple mentioning their love of gold – visiting museums in South Africa and now here in Taiwan. They are clearly enamoured by jewels and precious minerals. Not a promising sign. As I scroll down the thread titles I spot one called ‘Sansberg Necklace – Where Is It Now?‘ with members discussing the current whereabouts of the extortionately valued pearl necklace. Michael and Pauline are very active in determining its current location, and on several occasions they comment on how beautiful they find the piece. Their sleuthing has been successful, and they’ve tracked the necklace to Cindy. ‘How ridiculous! Giving such a unique and fabulous piece to the nanny! Lindholm had zero respect for fine jewellery,’ reads one of Pauline’s comments. ‘This is possibly the most beautiful pearl necklace in the world!’

I stop reading as I arrive at the diner. I join Josh and Naomi for American breakfast and milkshakes. I try to put aside what I’ve just read until I visit the Chapman’s hotel later.

“This place is not as good as back home, of course,” says Josh as our food arrives. “But it satisfies a craving. How are you feeling today, Greg?”

“I’m still confused by everything, to be completely honest,” I reply.

Naomi gives me a sympathetic look. ” I was too, up until yesterday. But now they’ve arrested that ex-boyfriend. It’s over.”

“Greg doesn’t think he did it,” says Josh.  “I suppose it could have been someone else. I didn’t really think that Cindy could have enemies. But now that I understand a little bit more about that necklace and its worth, it’s entirely possible. Naomi mentioned that Cindy told her about the relationship she had with her boss, and that Lindholm’s family may have been jealous.”

“Yes,” says Naomi. “It occurred to me after her death that her family may not have been happy with Cindy receiving that necklace. It was clearly worth a lot. I mentioned this to the police officer in Jiufen when he told me they’ve arrested Chih Ming. That could be something for them to look into! But they think they have their guy, so that’s that.”

“Its worth five million dollars, by the way. I looked it up.” I tell them. “It was easy to find out.”

Josh nearly spits out his pancakes. “What? What the hell was she doing wearing it every day? Obviously it was expensive, but wow.”

“Maybe she didn’t know its true value…” I suggest. ” I think she wore it more out of respect for Robin Lindholm than for how luxurious it is.”

“She only told me bits and pieces, but I always wondered what kind of relationship they had,” says Naomi. “I did suspect romantic. But it’s hard to imagine isn’t it? She was a strange girl, really. Very wary of new people. If she hadn’t met someone before, she didn’t trust them. She was shy with me at first, back in Rochester. Not for too long, though.”

“That’s because you’re so friendly and easy to get along with,” I compliment Naomi. “You both are. I noticed she wasn’t so forthcoming with me at first. But she seemed very protective of that necklace. So maybe she did know its value, and that’s why she was wary of people who tried to befriend her.”

We finish our meals and Josh pays from a screwed up wad of cash in his bag.

“Some bookings like to pay the old fashioned way,” Josh says frowning, nodding at the cash.

“We should be using that to eat more local food, instead of this stuff! Only a week left for us here,” Naomi says. ”

“Oh, so soon!” I say. “I didn’t realise. How did the billboard bookings go, cash payments aside?” I ask Josh.

“Oh, not bad!” he says, but I can hear disappointment in his voice. I wonder, despite the good things they’ve mentioned about their agency, if they were expecting more by the time their contracts were up.

“Well you’ve gained some great experience over here, I expect. It’ll put you in good stead back home.”

“Hopefully,” Josh says vaguely. Frustration at modelling sucesss aside, the spark Josh and I had is fading, I can see it. There’s a detachment. Cindy’s death has sort of put a damper on our flirting and I can tell that he and his sister probably just want to move on from the ordeal. Unfortunately, I became a part of that ordeal and am therefore included in this dark chapter that the two of them would preferrably rather forget.

“I’ll probably only be in Taiwan a few more days myself,” I tell the siblings. “But please, feel free to talk anytime. We may be able to help each other make sense of it all. I’d add you both on social media but you’re not on there?”

“Private profiles to avoid prying eyes at our agency,” Naomi explains. “We’ve heard horror stories about foreigners being fired based on their online photos and statuses.”

“Oh wow. We can just text. And guys, please do eat more Taiwanese food in your final week. Especially you, Josh! You are seriously missing out. Look up a place called Kuo Noodles. You won’t regret it.”

*

Pauline and Michael’s hotel is in the same area as mine, in the Taipei Main Station area. It’s worth a try to see if they’re around, I have to go to the main station anyway to travel up to Jiufen.

At the hotel I ask a receptionist about the couple. He tells me that they have checked out, but left their suitcases here. They should be collecting them shortly as they have to leave for their cruise ship. I wait in the lobby seating area. Michael and Pauline come back twenty minutes later and are clearly annoyed to see me at first, but sit down with me to talk.

“Look, we need to leave in a few minutes. We can’t talk for long,” Michael tells me. “What do you want? They’ve made an arrest. It was on the news.”

“Honestly, I want to talk about Joyful Over Jewels. You told me you didn’t know Cindy at all, but that’s not quite true.”

“Greg, why are you snooping?” Pauline asks, exasperated. “I know it’s suspicious but we didn’t do anything- we tried to help her when she started choking!”

“Okay, so clearly you’ve read our comments on the forum,” Michael says. “You know, we didn’t come to Taiwan specifically because of Cindy, if that’s what your getting at. It was a happy coincidence that she was in Taiwan during our cruise. We did however choose to visit Jiufen based on her movements. We couldn’t resist getting a look at the Sansberg necklace! But steal it? And kill Cindy? No, absolutely not.”

“You were, it appears, the last two people to speak to her,” I mention.

“Yes. She came into the cafe that we had decided to visit – by chance may I add. Once she sat down we decided it was worth a try asking her about the necklace. Just wanted to see it. And perhaps ask her why Lindholm gave it to her. Out of curiosity, you know. She wasn’t even wearing it anyway, like she was the day before. Saw a glimpse at the waterfall. Well, she was very rude and told us to leave her alone. We were only asking, for goodness sake.”

“And you noticed nothing unusual otherwise?” I ask, unsure whether to trust them or not.

“No. We tried to help,” Michael repeats. “You were there, so you know this. Now, Greg, we have to go. We suggest you leave this matter be. I just hope they can locate the necklace and find a good home for it.”

*

My journey to Jiufen is quick, and this time I manage to find the bus stop outside Riufang station. After the bus drops me off, my first stop is the hotel I stayed at. I spot Winnie in the kitchen and she’s surprised to see me.

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“Oh, Greg! What are you doing here?” Cindy puts down a knife and walks into the dining area.

“I heard Chih Ming has been arrested. It doesn’t seem right to me, at all. I came back to see if I can help in any way.”

“It’s horrible,” she sighs, sitting down with me at one of the dining tables. “I was so upset with him. And Cindy. I could see them getting close again… I’m not stupid. He mentioned her occasionally in the past. This week, I realised it was her, and I couldn’t believe she was staying at our hotel! But it’s so horrible that Cindy is dead and Chih Ming has been blamed… We haven’t been dating for long, but there’s no way he would do this. And they’ve found no evidence of poison at Daydreams and Tea. In the bubble tea machine, on the counters, nowhere. That poor manager there… either this is going to be great for her business or no one will visit anymore. Oh, wait there a second… I have something for you to try. I made some traditional style cheese balls.”

She brings a plate of them over and we share a few of the doughy balls filled perfectly with hot cheese piped in to the centre.

“Wow, these are great, thank you.”

“I’m glad you like them. I’m becoming very good with desserts now.”

“Winnie, why did you go to the cafe that day? When did you get there?”

“I got there just a minute before Cindy did. It was my morning off. I was taking a long walk and then decided to visit the cafe so I could chat with Chih Ming when his shift was over. Cindy seemed very flustered when she arrived, I don’t know why. I had just sat down at one of the booth tables when she walked in. She was looking in her bag carefully. Like she was double checking she had everything on her. She then sort of argued with Chih Ming for a few minutes. Because I was there. She saw me. But I think she was actually just emotional or stressed about something else at the time. She was very shaken.”

“She wasn’t like that when she left this dining room just fifteen minutes before. What happened after she ordered her drink?”

“Well, she sat down and then two foreigners came and spoke to her. They wanted to know about her jewellery, I think, but Cindy wasn’t happy about it so they went to sit down again. They were very disappointed. Then Chih Ming came over with her bubble tea. She added some popping pearls from a container to her drink. She put the container of popping pearls back into her bag on the floor. Very weird. Who carries popping pearls around with them? I noticed she added them to her drinks at breakfast here. Anyway, a few minutes later she was sick…”

“That’s very interesting. Thanks. You know, that necklace is worth a lot of money.”

“I heard. Whoever has it now, if they sell it, they can do anything they like in this world… Escape anywhere, buy anything they want… Imagine.” She sounds jealous. “I didn’t see anyone take it, though. I didn’t notice if she was wearing it. I mean, maybe when everyone gathered around her but it would be very difficult. If the necklace was in her bag maybe someone could grab it, but around her neck no way. Someone must have taken the necklace before she came.”

I thank Winnie for her food and conversation and once again retrace the path from the hotel to Daydreams and Tea. I am more sure than ever that something happened on her short journey to the cafe. As I climb the stone stairway, I look carefully for a sign, a clue, anything. I climb a particularly overgrown part of the stairway and spot something half submerged in the dirt next to one of the steps. As I look closer, I see it’s a Polaroid picture. I pick it up. It’s a picture of Alma and her boyfriend Kevin, here in Jiufen, walking along Old Street among a crowd of people. They’re not looking at the camera. I don’t think they knew the picture was being taken. Who took it? Why is it here? Why take a picture of them unawares? I look at the spot where I picked up the Polaroid more carefully, pushing a shrub to one side. Popping pearls! Just two of them, half covered by dirt.  There’s also a fragment of a receipt and two coins. I take a picture with my phone of the items and keep the Polaroid on me.

I walk back down the stairs and to the police station. The young officer seems confused, but takes it from me as I tell him there are a few other bits and pieces by the steps that could be considered evidence. I strongly advise him and his team to think about this case carefully, because I’m positive that Chih Ming has nothing to do with this. Whoever did this knew that Chih Ming would be an easy target, and in case he wasn’t, well, it would appear they hatched a plan to lure the daughter of Robin Lindholm to Jiufen while Cindy was here, making her look extremely suspicious.

I make my way to the bus stop. I think I’m done here. I have a lot to think about, and when I’m finished I’m going to need a bowl of beef noodle soup and a long chat with Freddy Kuo. I’m keen to discuss my thoughts with him and seek advice on how I should proceed from here.

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The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 5

It’s a slow start to the morning after a restless night’s sleep. Following the realisation that Cindy’s popping pearls were missing from her bag at the police station, I also started wondering about Robin Lindholm’s children, and a disturbing thought plagued my dreams. Lindholm had two children in the late eighties, a couple of years apart – a boy and a girl. I know two people who would fit that description, and they have the Swedish blonde hair and blue eyes to match. It’s outrageous to think they could concoct such an elaborate plan and a steady string of lies, but are Josh and Naomi Lindholm’s children? From what I know about English speaking Swedish people, it is often hard to tell they are Swedish because their English pronunciation is so clear. The minimal trace of a Swedish accent could make it nearly impossible. My online research yesterday revealed that Lindhom’s children went on to live in America and more recently Taiwan, perhaps it was Rochester and Taipei specifically… I really don’t know anything about Naomi and Josh’s lives before Taiwan, after all.

Trying not to panic too much about this, I message Josh and ask if I can drop by their apartment to see how they’re doing. I can’t find either Josh or Naomi on social media so there’s a chance I could find something in their apartment that confirms this crazy theory instead. Josh tells me to come over, so I make my way to their place next to Bangka Park, close to Lungshan Temple.

I enter the lobby of a worn down apartment complex. There’s a guard on duty behind a small, dusty glass window. He may be able to help with a question of mine. I ask if he speaks English. He looks slightly concerned but still nods.

“I’m a friend of Josh and Naomi’s,” I tell him.

“Ah. The models. Yes. Always with the friends visiting.”

Oh, I bet they always do have ‘friends’ over, both being young, beautiful and single.

“I have a question. Did you see Josh yesterday? Leaving and coming back?”

“Yes, yes. I saw him,” the guard says.

“Do you remember when?”

He thinks for a minute. “Left early. Dressed for work. White T-Shirt, black jeans. Hm. He came back a few hours later. Maybe 4 hours. Then he left again quickly after that. He was moving quickly.”

“Thank you, that’s very helpful.” He doesn’t seem at all concerned that I was asking about Josh’s comings and goings. The guard’s words confirm Josh’s movements on the day Cindy died. He had a modelling booking in the morning. He came back home, and then left again quickly as Naomi had told him to come up to Jiufen as soon as possible. Naomi was with me while Cindy was poisoned, so neither of them could have killed Cindy. This does not quite reassure me, though. They could have hired someone to kill her. One of these gangsters Freddy mentioned.

I nervously make my way up to their apartment. Josh greets me and we walk into a small, dingy space decorated with various items from home. Naomi is out. I walk past her room and notice plenty of designer bags, shoes and accessories. Josh did say they are doing well with their agency, and it seems like that’s just as well because Naomi has expensive taste. She can’t be fond of the mould growing in the corners of the ceiling, then.

“Let me make you some tea,” Josh says. “I know for you Brits that’s your solution to anything. I prefer the stronger stuff, however. Naomi and I have been on that since the murder…”

He heads into a poky kitchen area and I use the opportunity to search the living space, looking for any clues of a Swedish background.

Behind a poker table with cards and chips scattered across it, I notice a dusty chest of drawers that may contain the answer. I open the bottom drawer and spot a bunch of documents – contracts, random pay slips and discarded portfolio photos. Aha! US passports. And on closer inspection of their contracts, the identity info makes it very clear. Josh and Naomi are US citizens through and through. I breathe a huge sigh of relief. It’s just coincidental. Thinking about it, why would Lindholm’s children be living in this tiny, grubby apartment working as models? They’re a wealthy family. If his children are in Taiwan right now they probably have some swanky apartment. In hindsight, it was an absurd theory and I panicked. Something is bugging me though, and it’s to do with the idea of Swedish people and their generally flawless English accents. They must make mistakes occasionally, and this triggers a memory.

I want to get some use.”

The auburn haired woman’s words in Jiufen that confused me at the time. The sentence seemed so strange. Useuse… what does that mean? She wanted to go in to the 7-Eleven and get some use. 

Josh brings me my tea.

“You look deep in thought. Try not to overthink this horrible situation, Greg. The police are doing everything they can. It seems quite cut and dry that this ex-boyfriend is the killer. They’ll probably be making an arrest soon, I would bet on that with confidence.”

“I really don’t think it’s Chih Ming,” I tell Josh. “There are too many other things to consider here.”

I sip the tea, a lemon and ginger mix. Juice! I suddenly realise. I want to get some juice. With a silent J, it sounded like the word use to me. This certainly sounds like it could be Scandinavian pronunciation error. I need to find out where the mystery couple are. I drink my tea with haste, feeling guilty that I want to leave Josh quickly so I can find out more, adding to the guilt I already have at thinking Josh and Naomi could be responsible for Cindy’s death. I have a flash-forward, imagining Josh and I dating each other and then a few year from now I say, ‘It’s quite funny, really, but one time I thought you were a murderer.’

On my way home, I pop into a small mart and after finding the right aisle I pick up a container of popping pearls. These ones are strawberry flavoured, but the flavour is not important. I also need a syringe with a needle and I manage to find one at a 7-Eleven, which really seems to sell anything you could possibly want. While there I pick up some interesting looking snacks to try.

I arrive at my hotel and unpack the thin needle syringe and open the container of popping pearls. I then fill the syringe with a small amount of water. I need to test the idea formulating in my mind because I can’t be sure that it’s physically possible. I take one of the small pearls and carefully pierce the skin with the needle, injecting a tiny amount of water. The skin bursts and the water plus the juice from inside the pearl ooze out. Hmm. I try again, same thing. On my third try, however, I start getting the knack for it and only a little juice and water come out. After ten tries I have it down. I’m able to successfully inject a small amount of water into a pearl without it bursting. What if the popping pearls had been injected with cyanide? It would explain why there was only a minimal trace of cyanide in the taro milk. That could come from a few of the pearls bursting in the drink and any residue on the surface of the pearls. Cindy loved her mango popping pearls and added them liberally to her drinks, so enough poison could probably enter her system, even though these pearl cannot hold much liquid. As she enjoyed them so much, it was likely she sucked up all the pearls quickly. None left in the drink for the police to analyse. Also, the irony is not lost on me. Popping pearls being the cause of death means that Cindy was killed by pearls for her pearls. The murderer’s sick little joke. It is certainly quite an effort to inject poison into so many of these small pearls, but it’s a great way to baffle the police. And Cindy’s container of mango pearls was not in her bag after she died. Someone could have removed that in the cafe, or potentially at the police station if they were able to get away with it. Remove the evidence and leave the police confused. The only problem is that Cindy was eating the pearls just before she left for Daydreams and Tea on the day she was murdered. I saw her put some into her milk tea at the hotel. She didn’t react to them. They can’t have been injected with poison at that point. So how does this idea make sense?

I sigh, frustrated and move on to finding our what I can about Robin Lindholm’s children, specifically his daughter. There’s barely any information available, but a little Nancy Drewing on social media reveals a name that matches one article about the Lindholm family. Alma Lindholm. This could be Robin’s daughter. I click on her Facebook profile picture. It’s her – the auburn haired woman! Scrolling through her pictures, I realise she has only recently dyed her hair auburn. There are various pictures of her with friends, her brother – who looks very typically Scandinavian – and also her boyfriend Kevin, the Taiwanese – American man who accompanied her to Jiufen. Her personal info lists a job position in a law firm located in Taipei 101. Well, I was planning to visit the tower some point soon anyway. The international law firm Nilsson and Wu is on the skyscraper’s 63rd floor.

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I take the red MRT line to Taipei 101 Station and walk for a few minutes to the base of the skyscraper. Looking up, I can appreciate the intention to construct Taiwan 101 like a giant stalk of bamboo, making it different from the generally homogeneous design of so many skyscrapers. The ground floor is a mall of various fashion brands and franchise restaurants. A sign directs people seeking the entrance and elevators to the observation deck to the 5th floor. I need the business entrance, not the tourist one. I find out there is a service centre on the 35th floor that I can access, so I make my way up and walk over to a reception desk.

“I need to speak with Alma Lindholm of Nilsson and Wu, please. Floor 63.”

“Do you have an appointment with the company?” A small, neat woman asks me.

‘No, but it’s a situation of a private matter regarding her family.”

She looks at me sceptically. “Has she granted you an access card?”

“No, she told me I should come by and she would issue me one.”

‘Please wait a second.”

She makes a phone call and a few minutes later I see the familiar hair colour out of the corner of my eye. I turn towards Alma as she walks towards me. She stops dead in her tracks.

“You were in Jiufen. How did you find me?”

“We need to talk, Alma. I know who you are.”

She looks at me, completely unimpressed, and motions that I should follow her. She signs me in and I’m given an access card. We take the elevator up and walk in to a corner office of Nilsson and Wu which offers spectacular views of the city. She closes the door behind us.

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“Sit down. Before we begin, I need to know that this conversation will be confidential. And, I’d also like to know who the hell you are.”

“My name is Greg Newman and I’m a travel food writer. I assure you our conversation will stay in this office.”

She looks at me as if I’m stupid. I tell her about my connections to Cindy. I reassure her that I am outsider in all of this and am merely trying to assist the investigation and ensure the wrong person isn’t arrested. I remind her of the death penalty laws in Taiwan. Even though there has been very few executions in recent years, it’s something to bear in mind.

“I’m aware of the laws, thank you. In case you’ve forgotten already, this is a law firm.”

I ignore the dig. “You were looking for Cindy. Why?”

“Cindy had something that didn’t belong to her.”

“Do you now have that something?”

“No, I do not.”

“Why do you say it didn’t belong to her? She was given the necklace by your father. As a gift.”

“So we were led to believe.”

“If you don’t have it, them I’m only trying to help work out where it is now.”

“Look, our family lawyers back in Stockholm informed us that Cindy was not given the necklace and that she blackmailed my father.”

“Blackmailed over what?”

“The letter didn’t say.”

“The letter?”

Alma goes red in the face. “As I mentioned this matter is strictly confidential. In part because I am extremely embarrassed over this whole situation. My reckless actions have potentially brought unwanted attention to my family. You’re the first. But you won’t be the last. Or the most worrying. You’re not the police. You’re just nosy.”

I try to stand my ground. “Yet I have connections and may be able to help you.”

She pauses and walks over to her desk. She reaches into a drawer and hands me an envelope.

“I received this last week. Even on close inspection, it is has been made with incredible accuracy. I did not evaluate it closely at the time because I was consumed with rage.”

I read the letter, addressed to Alma and detailing how evidence that Robin Lindholm did not give the Sansberg necklace to Cindy Xiu as a gift has been found. It was instead taken by threat of blackmail. Their sources have traced Cindy’s current whereabouts to Rochester, New York State.

“When I received the letter I immediately thought about how to find Cindy Xiu. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long, or travel far. Her social media told me she was back in Taipei, just visiting. Her posts specifically mentioned a trip to Jiufen. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I was going to track her down myself. My brother is currently working in Dubai so it was up to me. I’m not sure how I’d ever find her in Taipei, but in a small town like Jiufen there was a possibility. I used her socials to check what she looked like – I never met her, you see, she was a nanny to the children my father had with his second wife, Shu Chen. I went to Jiufen with my partner Kevin. A foolish act. I hadn’t even bothered to contact our lawyers. Then, Cindy dies while I’m in the town. If anyone important realises who I am and that I was there at the same time as this murder, well, it doesn’t look good for me, does it?”

“And so the letter isn’t real?”

“On the day Cindy died, Shu Chen told me she never received a letter like this and contacted the lawyers. They confirmed that they had never sent such a thing out to any of us, and that the claims were false. So I risked all that, for nothing. You can imagine how nightmarish this is for me, working for Nilsson and Wu. The fact that I didn’t go through the proper procedures after the letter had been sent, or doubt the way they had presented this information, not requesting their sources. I look like a fool. I was just so angry! I even walked straight past her at one point when we were asking various hotels if she was staying there. I realised it was her afterwards. You were with her.”

“Yes. You looked so focused you weren’t even paying attention.”

“It’s a five million dollar necklace. You can understand my emotions.”

“The big question of course is who wrote that letter?”

“Whoever did, they are probably out there right now laughing at me. I fell for that one, hard. I suppose I’ve always resented the fact that my father gave the necklace to her. It’s made me hate her. I created an image of her in my mind that is probably not correct. I didn’t even know what I was going to do once I found her in Jiufen. I don’t think I want to know. Maybe it’s a good thing someone got in there first and killed her before I could… ”

“I really think you should tell the police. This letter is evidence. If this is a fake letter written by Cindy’s murderer it means we’re dealing with a very thorough, premeditated plan here.” That’s if Alma is telling me the truth, of course.

“No. I’m not prepared to do that. Not right now anyway. I’d be happy to take your contact details in case you find out more. Why are you so invested in this anyway?”

“Something has felt very off about this situation since I witnessed Cindy dying in that cafe. I’m just trying to discover what that is.”

Alma shows me out. As I take the elevator down, I receive a message from Josh. Chih Ming has been arrested. I shake my head. I’m running out of time here. The Jiufen police were just eager to blame someone. I think I need to return to Jiufen and see what more I can learn there.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 4

Naomi and Josh decide to leave early in the morning and catch the train to Taipei. For Naomi, staying in Jiufen longer than necessary is clearly traumatic, however I decide to stick around for a while. They gather their things – Naomi has a lot of luggage so Josh helps her carry it, and I say goodbye and promise them that we will meet up soon. I feel they may need some space to themselves for a little while. Yesterday I didn’t know what to do with myself. Overnight, I decided to make a more productive use of my time as a witness and a link to Cindy.

I check out of the hotel with Winnie’s mother and try get the point across that I’d like to leave my bags here for a short time. Winnie is absent which is a shame, not just because of communication issues with her mother, but also because I’m keen to chat to her after yesterday’s events. In a small town like this, everyone knows about what happened. I may not be able to understand the language, but I can tell it’s the subject on everyone’s lips.

I retrace the steps Naomi and I took to Daydreams and Tea. Presumably this is the same route Cindy took – up the stone stairway. The stairway feels quiet and secluded, helped by the overgrowing fauna on either side. The cafe is closed, understandably, but the young male employee I saw on the scene yesterday is sitting outside the front door smoking. We acknowledge each other.

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“You were here yesterday,” he says gloomily. “I remember.”

“Yes. I knew Cindy, a little.”

“Oh… you are the food writer. Okay.”

“Yes… how do you know that?”

“Cindy told me. My name is Chih Ming.”

“You knew her? As a customer?” I know Cindy liked to visit this cafe regularly so perhaps got to know the staff, but it was also mentioned she knew some of the employees personally.

“I knew her. I knew her very well. We were dating before she left to work in Sweden. Now she comes back here and I can’t believe she died. Here! They say she was poisoned. And I’m so upset, and so confused.”

“Confused that this could happen?”

“Confused because I made her the drink!”

“The taro bubble tea?”

“Yes! And my manager, she told the police I made it! I don’t understand. I made it just like she always enjoys it. Semi-sweet, many tapioca balls. I used the machine like normal. The machine we use for everyone. I took the tea to her table. And five minutes later she is dying.”

I sit down next to him.

“You must be extremely shaken. Did you see anything strange?”

“Maybe something. We talked for a little bit when she came in. It was a bit stressful, the conversation. She asked for the tea. She sat down and some other people came to talk to her. Older couple. Foreigners. They were asking about something, I couldn’t understand what it was. Cindy looked very unhappy. She told them to leave her alone.”

“I see. And why was it stressful speaking to Cindy?”

“It was very awkward. Because I sort of started dating another girl recently. But now Cindy and I were getting very close again. And it was stressful because the other girl was in the cafe at the time, too. They were both unhappy with me.”

“It’s Winnie, isn’t it? I saw her hug you.”

“Yes,” he nods sadly.  “You know, other people wanted to speak to Cindy also. Yesterday morning an American woman and an American-Taiwanese man asked me about her. They said they saw her come into this cafe twice already. And they know which hotel she was staying at. But they couldn’t find her to stop and talk to her yet. It was like they were spying on her! I was a little scared. When Cindy came into the cafe yesterday she seemed a little scared herself. Very… bothered by something. I wanted to ask her about it later in the day, but…”

“Oh really? Did you notice her necklace missing at any point?”

“Oh, the necklace. It was so nice… a gift from her boss in Sweden. A beautiful necklace. They say she wasn’t wearing it when she died but I can’t remember. I must try harder to think about that. I definitely did not see anyone take the necklace from her neck, you know. I would have seen that. I’m surprised she even took it off.”

“She was wearing it when she left us to come here.”

“Well, I think she took it off before she even came into the cafe then. On her way here. Something must have happened on her journey.”

I sit with Chih Ming while he finishes another cigarette and then I walk back along the road and down the stairway. I continue walking past the hotel to visit the police station, maybe they will have an update before I leave Jiufen. The young English speaking officer looks exhausted.

“Everyone is upset here because this murder was on the news. It brings bad repuation to our town. So we want to make an arrest soon.”

“Do you have ideas?”

“I don’t think so yet, sir. But we have Ms. Xiu’s belongings now, and maybe there are some clues.”

I notice the contents of Cindy’s handbag have been casually laid out on a nearby desk – her purse, phone, a make up kit, moisturiser, a lip balm, and some loose change and receipts.

“We will be looking through her phone. Perhaps she has been in contact with someone that will provide us with more information.”

“Do you know anything more about the poison?”

“Yes. Autopsy this morning. The early autopsy results show cyanide in Ms. Xiu’s system. We have analysed the taro tea she drank, and yes there are traces of cyanide. It’s strange though, because it is a very small trace. To compare it to the amount of cyanide in the body, it is not much at all. So, we are a little confused.”

That does sound peculiar indeed. I thank the officer and ask him to keep me updated.

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My last stop before I collect my bags is Pauline and Michael’s guest house. I was planning on speaking to them either way before I leave, but now with the information Chih Ming has told me I’m extremely curious to find out what they have to say. I remember the name of their guest house from our taxi journey together, it’s just a minute’s walk from my hotel. Walking in, I see the middle-aged couple sitting on a sofa in the lobby. Their packed bags sit at their feet and they’re drinking coffee from paper cups. I greet them and take a seat on an armchair next to them.

“I’m still so shaken,” says Pauline. “Didn’t sleep a wink. How about you? You knew her, it must have been terrible.”

“I was in and out of sleep. You didn’t know her at all, did you?”

“No, no. Not at all. Still shocking to see that happen, though.”

I think about the way the couple looked at Cindy when we were at the golden waterfall, as well as the confrontation at the cafe I’ve just been made aware of. It’s tricky to think of a way to ask them about it without sounding accusatory.

“She was a soft spoken girl,” I tell them. “If you had heard her speak you would wonder why anyone would want to do this to her. I certainly do.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” says Michael. ‘”Well, it was nice to meet you, Greg. Too bad about the circumstances… We have to go back to Taipei now. Enjoy the rest of your trip.”

The couple both shake my hand and leave quickly. They certainly aren’t prepared to give any information away. I watch them leave, frustrated. What are they hiding?

Despite my stops around Jiufen, there’s no sign of the mystery couple. I was hoping I might see them. They’ve been popping up everywhere else, and now when I want to see them, they’ve disappeared.

After picking up my bags, I hop into a taxi and begin the journey back to Taipei. I need some company. Some non Jiufen related company. Once back in the capital city, I decide to pay a visit to Kuo Noodles. Hopefully Freddy won’t mind my sombre travel update. When I tell him the news he orders me a large bowl of beef noodle soup immediately. He sits down with me to talk about it.

“You didn’t know anything about her, really. Maybe it was Taiwnaese gangsters. Hired to take that necklace. You said it’s five million dollars? Hm. Remember I told you about the gangsters here… she maybe got caught up in something. Jiufen is not a place for murder.”

“Yes… it was surreal. I can’t believe she wore the necklace daily. I mean, she seemed very protective of it but that’s still a bit much.”

“I think you should do some more research on this Lindholm family. If Lindholm’s second wife was Taiwanese then there could be some links here. What can you find out about the wife? Was she expecting the necklace when Lindholm died? Maybe she hired the gangsters here. She waited until Cindy came back to visit Taiwan because she had contacts in her home country that could take care of this…”

“Maybe. The cafe is a curious choice to murder her. Her old boyfriend was the one who served her the drink. If he really had nothing to do with it, then perhaps whoever did wanted to pass the blame.”

“Yes. The Jiufen police will want to make an arrest. This boyfriend is an easy choice.”

“But he has no motive. Why kill Cindy? The police should be able to see that. He was happy to see her again. He was obviously conflicted because he’s now seeing a local girl, Winnie, but that’s not a reason to kill. If anything, Winnie is the one that has a motive. Cindy kept returning to the cafe and the former couple were getting closer again.”

“Maybe the police will be bribed… they will arrest this boyfriend even if they know it’s not right. But maybe not? Perhaps the boyfriend and Winnie plotted together. Maybe they knew the value of the pearl necklace and made a plan. They both probably wanted to move out on from their current situations. The boyfriend wants to get out of that cafe, I expect. And Winnie has been helping her struggling family for many years it sounds like. But she has dreams and passions that cannot be fulfilled there. As nice as it is in Jiufen, you don’t want to live there as a young man or woman. Everyone is always looking to escape. Look at the foreigners who come to Taiwan to teach English or find other work. Often they are escaping something. But you know, that never usually works out for people.”

“This is true. I really want to speak to Winnie again. At least I know where to find her. I have no idea where the American – Taiwanese couple are. Something very strange happening there. They just kept appearing! And they asked about Cindy at our hotel and at the cafe. They were clearly intent on talking to her, and the woman seemed quite stressed.”

“Maybe you need to take another trip to Jiufen to satisfy your curiosity. You can talk to this Winnie, and maybe ask around about this strange couple.”

I finish my soup, just as delicious as last time and especially comforting today. I thank Freddy for both his food and his advice – he refuses my attempt to pay and tells me to come down every day until I leave if I like. I may well take him up on that offer.

Back at my hotel, I research a little more. Reading further about the Lindhom family, I find out that Robin had two children with his first wife in the late eighties, just a couple of years apart. The children have gone on to have successful careers, working outside of Sweden in both the USA and Taiwan, thanks to the influence of Lindholm’s second wife.

I imagine the children wern’t too impressed at Cindy being given a five million dollar necklace either. I’m not sure how helpful this all is, though. I close my laptop and realize I need a walk. I want to explore and discover something new, free my mind from yesterday’s events. I decide to visit the Chiang Kai Shek memorial, one of Taipei’s most famous attractions. The national monument was built in memory of this former president.

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After a thirty minute walk I arrive. The landmark is situated on a huge courtyard – I love how wide the space is. The memorial itself is an impressive white building with a blue octagonal roof. The multi arched gate at the entrance to the landmark and the two colorful and ornate buildings on either side of the courtyard are equally stunning. Around the area are well kept lawns, flower beds and ponds. I head towards one pond and take a seat on a conveniently placed rock by the pond’s edge. I put my headphones on, begin listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night album, and lose myself to the view in front of me. Behind the memorial the Taipei skyline is clear, a reminder that beyond this tranquil area is a bustling city of nearly three million people. Taipei 101, once the tallest building in the world, stands out amongst the other skyscrapers. At first I think about nothing except the music and sights around me, but gradually I begin to process the information I learnt today. In a moment of clarity, I realize I completely missed something earlier, and that’s because it was missing from the contents of Cindy’s bag that were laid out at the police station.

The pearls from the necklace are not the only pearls that have gone missing.

 

© Intrigue Inn

The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 3

Naomi, Cindy and I all agree on a slow start the next day. I have breakfast alone in the dining room and Winnie brings over some sesame and peanut mochi she made for me to try. Afterwards, I take a walk to digest and admire the views before returning. Naomi and Cindy are having a late breakfast so I pull up a chair. I notice only Naomi is eating the hotel breakfast – a dough stick and warm soy milk. Cindy sips on what looks like milk tea, adding some of the mango pearls she’s obsessed with.  I notice Winnie isn’t in the kitchen anymore, instead her mother is washing dishes.

“Good Morning, Greg!” Naomi greets me cheerfully.

“What are you two up to today?” I ask.

“Well, Cindy is about to head off to her favourite cafe, I thought we could join her there in a bit? She says their bubble tea is better than what we had yesterday. Well, I liked the one we had, but those mango pearls did make it better,” Naomi admits, nodding in the direction of Cindy’s tea.

“They make everything better,” Cindy agrees. “Maybe we will go hiking up Keelung Mountain later. The trail begins close to the golden waterfall.” She fiddles with her necklace while she talks, it’s more visible today. I notice it’s a pearl necklace, but knowing nothing about jewellery I can’t be sure if they’re real pearls or not.

“Okay, that sounds good to me. That’s a really pretty necklace, by the way.”

Cindy gives me a strange look and puts her hand over the necklace, as if to protect it.

“Yes,” she replies simply.

“As long as I’ve known you, you’ve never taken that necklace off,” Naomi comments.

“I’ll never take it off,” Cindy replies. “Okay, I will see you soon.” She finishes her tea, grabs her handbag and leaves.

“She really loves that cafe!” I remark. And that necklace, I think to myself.

“I think she knows people who work there. Old acquaintances,” Naomi says as she checks her phone. “Oh, Josh just messaged that he’ll be done with work in a few hours, he’ll probably come and join us. Winnie told me there’s still a couple of rooms free here so he’s good to stay overnight if he wants. So that’s good. But enough about Josh! I want to know more about you.”

We chat for around fifteen minutes about my travels while Naomi finishes her meal, we then grab our bags and make our way up to the road above on the stone stairway. We turn left and pass several small houses and homeware shops.

“The cafe is along here I believe… Ah, here we are. Daydreams and Tea.”

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We walk in. It’s clear something is wrong the second we enter the cafe. It’s the wrong noise. There’s a nervous energy. There are various booth style tables around the room with a counter and kitchen to the left. In the middle of the cafe there are several tables also, and it’s around one of these that several customers and staff are gathered. Without sound it would look like someone is demonstrating a cool trick or performance of some kind, but this isn’t the case. We both stand for a second, confused, then Naomi steps forward.

“Is that-” She rushes over to the crowd. As I look closer I understood the word she doesn’t say is “Cindy”. It’s hard to make out, but something is definitely wrong with Cindy. A few customers are standing up at their tables, hesitant to join the crowd, watching on concerned. I spot Winnie amongst them, standing besides her own small booth set for one. At the counter a young girl in a blue apron stares at the scene open mouthed.

“What’s happened?” I ask her.

She looks at me, closes her mouth and opens it again.

“Sick. She’s sick.”

I join the crowd. I can see Cindy clearly now, in severe discomfort, slumped back in her chair. With her head back, her neck is exposed and I instantly notice it’s bare – no necklace. Naomi ducks down in order to weave in between the crowd. She looks up at me, her expression panicked. She kneels down next to Cindy and stays there, trying to comfort her and work out what’s wrong.

“She’s not moving!” cries a familiar voice. It’s Pauline, a few steps in front of me. She looks around wildly, noticing me behind her.

“Greg! Oh My God… she just started off a few minutes ago… some kind of reaction… Oh Lord!”

“Someone’s called an ambulance?”

“Er, yes…the manager, I believe,” she nods her head in the direction of a middle aged woman in another blue apron. One more apron is present in the crowd, belonging to a young man with the most stressed look of all on his face, speaking rapidly and shaking Cindy’s shoulder.

Naomi squirms her way back out of the crowd.

“Greg, what do we do? I don’t get it!”

“Is it an allergic reaction?” I ask. “Although she seems to eat anything…”

I look at Cindy’s table and see only a familiar purple drink, two thirds empty.

“Taro bubble tea… she drinks that all the time,” Naomi says. “She shouldn’t have a bad reaction to it.”

The manager shouts something and people begin to move away from Cindy. Naomi, Pauline and I shuffle back. Michael appears from the middle of the crowd.

“I can’t believe it,” he says, shaking his head.

“Is she dead?” asks Mary.

“There’s a pulse. I checked. But…” But it doesn’t look good.

The tone of the rapid chatter around us changes and I turn to see two paramedics in orange and black come through the door, walking swiftly to Cindy’s table. One of them starts talking to the manager while the other attends to Cindy.

She was just sitting, drinking, when this began?” I ask Michael and Pauline.

“Yes,” says Pauline. “We were the first to notice it, I think. She just started making noises and waving her hands around, she looked in pain. The manager hurried over and then a few others, including us.”

A police officer walks into the cafe and surveys the room. Naomi joins the manager and paramedic and begins speaking emotionally with them, trying to get across what she can in English. The blue apron male employee joins them, looking tearful. Without understanding their words, it looks like the paramedics want to take Cindy away as quickly as possible. Sure enough, a third paramedic enters the scene with a stretcher seconds later. Pauline puts her hand to her mouth.

I’ll never take it off. Cindy’s words no longer than half an hour ago echo in my mind. What happened to her necklace? We left Cindy for twenty minutes or less. What on earth happened during that time?

Naomi comes back to join us, while Winnie tentatively walks up to the male employee who is still talking with the officer. I follow her.

‘Winnie, are you okay?”

“Oh! Hello, Greg… She drinks her drink and then this!”

She’s probably in that cafe again. This time, I remember what Winnie said to me yesterday.

I have a lot of questions on the tip of my tongue, but right now isn’t the time to ask them.

I walk over to the small huddle of Naomi, the police officer and the manager. The male employee has left the group, his head in his hands. He looks up and sees Winnie in front of him. They stare at each other briefly and then hug. 

The police officer nods at me and speaks to the manager, who turns to face me.

“Sorry, the policeman does not speak English well. And me, but it’s better.”

The police officer speaks again and the manager translates.

“You know this girl. There is other policeman for English. You can talk to him. At the police station.” She pauses and then shakes her head. “I’m sorry.”

She is sorry, but it’s clear there’s an element of why did this have to happen in my cafe about her.

The older police officer indicates we should follow him. I mention the missing necklace and he nods, I’m not sure if he understands me or not. His car is parked outside. I wonder if it had been necessary to drive. Probably quicker to run, the police station isn’t far.

Minutes later we pull into the small station close to our hotel. It feels so strange to be here, for this to be happening at all in this charming, beautiful town. Naomi messages Josh and asks him to come as soon as he can. Inside the station, a younger officer approaches us.

‘Hello,’ he says nervously, seemingly regretting being the only officer with English language skills.

The next half hour is a blur as the officer informs us that Cindy has died on her way to the hospital, suspected poisoning. Naomi is stunned into silence for a while, and when she’s ready to talk, the officer asks us a few questions.

“You are just here for a visit? How did you know Ms. Xiu?”

“I’m working in Taipei. Cindy is my friend,” Naomi tells him. She explains how they met in the USA.

The officer nods and turns to me. “And sir, you?”

“I only met Naomi and Cindy yesterday,” I say, feeling a little useless. “Naomi’s brother who I’ve met here on my travels put me in touch with them. We were both visiting Jiufen at the same time, so we arranged some sight seeing together.”

“And the trip it has been… as expected? Nothing strange happening?”

“Not that I… we can think of,” Naomi says looking at me and shrugging. I agree.

“We understand her necklace is missing. What can you tell us about that?”

“I noticed that, but I know very little about it,” I admit.

“I only know a few things,” says Naomi. “She was given that necklace in Sweden. By her employer. He gave it to her before she left Sweden. He was terminally ill, she told me. I don’t know too much about it, but it looked expensive.”

“We will find out more about this necklace. Please, tell me when you last saw her?

“It was just before midday. She left the hotel to visit the cafe and we went to join her just fifteen minutes later…”

After a few more questions and filling out written statements, we walk slowly back to the hotel. We’ve been asked to stay in Jiufen today in case of further questioning.

“I’m so sorry, Greg. You shouldn’t have seen any of this. To be dragged into something so miserable…”

I tell her not to worry and comfort her as best as I can.

“I couldn’t remember much about the necklace, I tried to write as much as I could on the statement,” she tells me. “She really loved her employer… she used to talk about him with such reverence. A very wealthy family who lived on the outskirts of Stockholm. Lindholm was the family name, I remember that. Her employer, an elderly man, remarried a younger Taiwanese woman.”

Naomi needs some time alone so we go to our rooms and I suggest she rests before Josh arrives. I try to rest myself, but it’s impossible. I open up my laptop. I need to know more, if I can find out more, about the Lindholm family. It looks like this necklace is at the centre of all this. Who would be able to take it from Cindy? She told us she would never take it off. Half an hour later, she’s dead and the necklace is missing. I try a few search terms and eventually find an article detailing well respected entrepreneur Robin Lindholm’s death. The article focuses on Robin’s wealth and his beneficiaries, but points out that his most prized possession, the Sansberg pearl necklace, had been previously given away. The light cream and white natural pearl necklace has been valued at four million dollars. I inhale sharply as I read this. It’s apparently one of the most expensive pearl necklaces in the world. Is this really the same necklace Cindy wore? Why would she wear such an alarmingly expensive necklace every day? Did she know how much it was worth – did Robin tell her? She said she would never take it off, but I wonder if that was more for sentimental value than anything, she clearly had a soft spot for Robin.

An hour and a half later, Josh arrives at the hotel. We speak briefly in the lobby and he checks I’m okay, reiterating his sister’s apology of me bearing witness to this tragedy.

“Sorry I couldn’t be here earlier. As soon as Naomi told me I went home to grab a few things and made my way. I’m going to check in with Naomi now – I’ll come and see how you’re doing later on?”

I tell him to spend as much time as he likes with Naomi. Some time later, he knocks on my door and asks if I’d like some fresh air. I do, so we decide to visit the A Mei Teahouse.

“The police officer called Naomi to fill her in some more details. They are looking into what she drank at that cafe. They’re quite sure it’s poison. It was some kind of bubble tea?”

“Yes, a taro bubble tea. It was nearly finished though, so the poison took a while to act? If the poison was in the drink at all, that is.”

Josh sighs. “The whole thing is… surreal. I only met her once back in Rochester. I didn’t know her like Naomi did. It’s not like Naomi and her were the best of friends either, but still. And apparently this is all over a necklace? Poisoned for a necklace? What is this, 1935?”

“It doesn’t make sense, though. She wasn’t wearing the necklace when we entered the cafe. I hope they’re taking witness statements from all the customers and employees there at the time. If Cindy’s necklace was taken from her while in the cafe, someone would have surely seen that. Maybe it was taken when everyone gathered around her after she was poisoned. Someone could have stayed close to her under the pretence of checking if she was okay, and taken the necklace. That seems incredibly risky though.”

“Why poison someone and then take the necklace in a situation where you can’t be sure that you’ll have the opportunity to do it? What if all those people didn’t gather around Cindy?”

“True, it’s just that Cindy said she would never take the necklace off.”

Josh shakes his head. “I don’t know. But someone must have seen something unusual happening, surely.”

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We arrive at the tea house and are greeted by a hostess who escorts us up to the veranda. The view is breathtaking, but it feels strange to enjoy it. Or maybe I should appreciate it even more? The whole day has been so destabilising, I don’t know how I should feel or act. Cindy is dead. I only knew her for one day, but it was long enough to want to understand her and get to know her better. Then I tried to comfort a girl who I’d also known for just one day. Now I’m the one being comforted and checked on by someone who I’ve known for just a day longer than Cindy and Naomi. I feel so out of place. But at the same time, I have so many questions. Something is off about the whole situation, I just can’t work out what. 

Josh orders the regular tea set. It’s a little pricey by Taiwanese standards. Our hostess brings a tray of tea and snacks over and explains the traditional way of making the tea.

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“Will Naomi be okay?” I ask Josh.

“I think so. I think she’s a little frightened, actually. The fact Cindy was poisoned. In this quaint little place. Did she have any enemies here? I mean, she has friends here, I heard. Who would want to kill her?”

I don’t answer but certain people do pop into my mind. Why did Winnie stare at Cindy so curiously? And Pauline and Michael also when we visited the waterfall? All three of them just happened to be at the cafe at the same time… And of course, who are the mystery couple? What did they want with Cindy? I never did get a chance to ask Cindy about them. Also, the male employee at Daydreams and Tea reacted differently to everyone else in the cafe. He really seemed more distraught than anyone. We drink with minimal conversation, both shell-shocked after the day’s events, but I’m glad Josh is here. The quiet companionship is needed. We finish our tea and walk slowly back to the hotel. We head to our rooms and I try and process my thoughts before getting some sleep. Perhaps I can help in some way, and there are certainly several people I’d like to talk to tomorrow to begin with.

© Intrigue Inn

The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 2

The next morning I’m back at Taipei Main Station with a small overnight bag. I grab a milk tea from the 7-Eleven and head across the check-board patterned discourse to the ticket counters. I buy a ticket for a local train to Riufang. From this town I can catch a bus or take a taxi to Jiufen. I head underground and try to figure out the way to my platform. I pass a stand selling Taiwanese lunch boxes which I’m keen to try – I made a mental note to remember this place after my return trip. I find my platform and the train arrives a few minutes later. It’s a local, therefore a little older and grubbier than the MRT, but perfectly comfortable.

“This is the one.” An American voice stands out amongst the Taiwanese chatter as I board, whether it be Mandarin or other dialects. I look left to see an auburn haired woman slightly out of breath, followed by a man carrying a travellers rucksack.

“If we had to wait for the next one, it would be okay,” he says.

The woman sweeps her long hair back, bites her lip a little and sighs. She looks agitated.

“Yes, Kevin, I just -”

“I know. It’s okay. Relax.”

They look around for free seats and spot some at the opposite end of the carriage, their voices fading as they walk away.

I should be working on my latest article for EAT (detailing the historical significance of kimchi) but instead I put my headphones on and listen to some David Bowie while looking out at the scenery. We leave a series of grey high rise buildings behind and enter green mountainous countryside. The train passes a few derelict looking train stations. We arrive at the fairly small and slightly shabby looking Riufang station forty minutes later. I spot the American sounding couple leaving the train quickly and walking with purpose. They look like they knew what they’re doing so I follow them until I get caught up in a line. An efficient looking woman in a black uniform cap is taking tickets. The couple have already handed in their tickets and I soon loose sight of them.

There’s a taxi rank to my left when I leave the station, but I’m sure I can find the bus stop easily so walk directly ahead. I’m starting to get quite hungry and the small barbecue stalls selling mystery meat along the road aren’t helping, but I should probably wait until I meet Naomi and her friend. There’s no sign of the bus station, so I promptly turn and see an English looking middle aged couple walking towards me – a balding man dressed in a white polo top and shorts and a woman with a short mousy hair. Both are carrying overnight backpacks.

“Excuse me! Is this way to the bus stop, do you know?” The woman asks in a southern English accent.

“Doesn’t look like it,” I reply. “Think we’ve both made the same mistake.”

“Oh dear! It’s getting too hot for this! Michael, taxi?”

It doesn’t feel that hot to me, but their backpacks do look quite heavy.

“Yeah, go on then,” says Michael, wiping his brow. “Where are you off too, Jiufen? Come, jump in the taxi with us!

I agree and we return to the taxi rank together. “You’re English? Where are you from?” The woman asks.

“Winchester originally, and you?”

“Oh, lovely! We’re from Weybridge. Not too far really. What brings you here?”

“The food, mostly.”

The man chuckles but the woman interjects. “Oh you like it? It doesn’t all agree with me I’m afraid. I hope there are some foreign restaurants in Jiufen. A nice pasta place maybe.”

Given the tiny size of Jiufen and much of it’s popularity stemming from it’s traditional delicacies, I fear she will be disappointed.

“I’m sure it will lovely to look around either way,” she continues. “One of the crew called it the Pearl of Taiwan. The Positano of the East! And Positano is absolutely beautiful.”

“Yes, but you won’t be getting your spaghetti marinara so easily here, Pauline. We’re mostly excited about the gold museum, anyway,” Michael says. “Jiufen, please!” He speaks a little too slowly and clearly to a driver waiting outside his car. We all step in.

“Yes!” says Pauline excitedly. “Now THAT should be fascinating.  Will be hard to beat the one in Cape Town, though. Gold of Africa.” She gasps. “Wow, that was dazzling. And that jewellery museum in Hong Kong…” Her eyes light up at the thought.

We tell the taxi driver the names of our respective hotels which turn out to be quite close to each other. I find out a little about the couple during the ten minute journey through bumpy roads and past ramshackle isolated buildings. They’re on a cruise through northern Asia and their previous stop was Hong Kong. They have only a few days in Taiwan before moving on. The road begins to wind around coastal cliff edges and a stunning blue sea is visible as we ascend steeply.

“Oh, wow,” says Pauline softly, looking out the taxi window. “Isn’t that pretty!”

It certainly is. We pass an ornate orange tiled temple set into the cliff side and the narrow road curves to the left. Michael seems a little more concerned with how fast our taxi is going. My hotel is first as we pass by a police station.  I give Pauline my share of the taxi fare and and thank them.

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“Hope to see you around the town!” Michael calls out from the taxi as I leave.

My hotel is set against another cliff. I wander into the main entrance of the hotel and enter a lobby with a small office area and a few dining tables to the left. Two old men chatter away while eating at a corner table.

“Greg?” A voice asks tentatively.

I turn around to see a tall blonde woman. Naomi is naturally stunning, with the same piercing blue eyes her brother has.

“I’m Naomi,” She says, shaking my hand warmly. “Josh said if you spot an English silver fox, you’ve got your man. Well, I haven’t heard you speak, but it’s pretty obvious!”

A thin, unassuming girl stands shyly just behind Naomi.

“This is Cindy. I bet she’ll have a lot to say to you about your food blog!”

Cindy doesn’t look like she has anything to say at all. She shakes my hand delicately and gives me the faintest hint of a smile.

“Are you hungry, Greg?” Naomi asks.

“It’s all I’ve been thinking about out for the last hour. Come to think of it, It’s generally all I think about.”

“Well, of course, with your website!” She laughs. “So this place does breakfast, I know it’s nearly lunchtime but they can still make you up something, I asked. But let’s get you checked in first, I’m getting ahead of myself here, sorry.”

“Okay,” I agree, amused at her enthusiastic manner. “I’ll just check in quickly. What are you up to now? Please don’t wait on my behalf if you have somewhere to be.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry about that. We’re heading to Jinguashi later so you should definitely join! It’s the next town over. Cindy says it’s really worth the visit.”

Cindy just nods.

“Sounds good to me,” I reply.

“Great!” She claps a little.

I walk over to the counter where an older woman is looking through paperwork. She looks up and I say hello. Instead of replying to me she yells loudly in Mandarin towards the kitchen. A young woman pops her head around the kitchen door and replies. Cindy then steps forward and speaks to the two of them, the old woman nodding and the girl disappearing into the kitchen again.

“She was asking her daughter to help check you in,” Cindy explains, speaking to me for the first time. “Because the daughter can speak English. But I said it’s okay because I can help. You should show the old lady your passport.”

I retrieve my passport from a secure back compartment in my bag and a few minutes later I’m checked in, walking up a large wooden staircase to my room.

“You’re 205?” Naomi asks. “We’re 201, just down the hall. The rooms are very cute.”

As we climb the staircase I notice a display cabinet full of various knick-knacks – ornaments from around the world and an assortment of movie posters. The landing is home to a shelf with about 15 teddy bears of different sizes and shapes.

“Interesting style,” I comment.

“Bit of a mish-mash, right? I like it though,” replies Naomi.

As we reach the door of 205 Cindy and Naomi stop.

“We’ll leave you to it! Why don’t we meet in the lobby in a hour and we’ll walk together the bus stop? Jinguashi is just a ten minute ride away. Then later on we can explore Old Street, right Cindy?”

“Yes,” Cindy agrees. “There are many things to look at in Old Street. But now it’s very busy. So we can go to Jinguashi and maybe the street will be less crowded when we come back.” She speaks very matter-of-factly. The manner of the two girls is quite a contrast.

I thank them and enter my room. It’s large and airy with a view of the ocean across the road. I take a quick shower before heading down to the dining area. The owner’s daughter is cleaning away the old men’s dishes who have now left.

“Hello, can I still get something to eat or is it too late?” I usually become very self aware at these moments about my lack of foreign language skills and the Westerner’s expectation that everyone understands English. In this case however, I know that the daughter can understand me.

“It’s fine, please, sit,” she gestures. “I’ll prepare you a plate. Taiwanese breakfast.”

I thank her with a big smile – I’ve been wanting to try a traditional breakfast. She returns shortly with a tray full of various items, explaining to me what they are. There’s a deep fried stick of dough called youtiao, an egg crepe roll called dan bing, a turnip cake – buo gao and a bowl of warm soybean milk.

“What’s your name?” I ask as I begin eating.

“I’m Winnie.”

“Winnie, would you mind if I mention you on my website? I have a food website where I write about different meals when I travel. It would be nice to mention your name and the breakfast here briefly, seeing as it’s homemade by yourself. And it’s really delicious.”

Winnie blushes a little. “Oh, okay, it’s fine. I’m glad you like it. I really enjoy cooking and sharing traditional Taiwanese foods with visitors. I also like to make a lot of cakes and candies. It’s fun to experiment! I would love to leave Jiufen and go to a good cookery school. But it’s hard. I have to support my family here.” She sighs. “Is this your first time in Jiufen?”

“Yes. I haven’t seen anything yet apart from the beautiful ocean views and this hotel.”

“Oh, you have many foods to try here then for your website.”

“Any recommendations?”

“The taro balls of course, it’s very famous here in Jiufen. You can find so many other snacks and things to try, though. You must go to the tea houses, too.”

“Any in particular?”

“There are big ones like A Mei but also some very good ones closer to this hotel. There is one I really like. It is called Daydreams and Tea. Your Taiwanese friend mentioned it already, actually. She must know about it.” She looks very pensive as she says this.

“Oh, okay, I’ll remember it. How long have you and your parents had this hotel, Winnie?”

“About ten years now. My parents had a small shop near Old Street before that. But this is a bit better, I think. We really struggled with that shop.”

“It’s certainly a great location here.”

Winnie agrees before going back to the kitchen. I finish my meal and Naomi and Cindy appear shortly after. I notice Winnie staring at Cindy curiously from the kitchen doorway.

As we walk out a couple walk in, and I clock the auburn hair immediately. It’s the couple from the train. Like before, the woman appears very determined and walks up to the counter with purpose. The three of us take a left until we came to a steep stone stairway cut into the cliff.

“We can go this way,” says Cindy.

“You’re the boss,” replies Naomi. “You know this place.”

“So you used to live here, Cindy?” I ask.

“No. But I spent a lot of time here when I was at University in Taipei.”

She says nothing more so I turn to Naomi as we climb the staircase and ask how they know each other.

“Cindy is working as a nanny in Rochester. The kids she looks after were getting some professional photos taken one day at a studio I was working at. We started chatting and when I realised she was Taiwanese I told her all about my upcoming trip here! We hung out a few times before I flew over. She’s just back now for a couple of weeks visiting friends and family.”

We reach a street with a large viewing platform to our left jutting out towards the ocean. Several tourists are taking pictures with selfie sticks.

We cross the road and there’s another stairway up.

“Sorry, one more,” says Cindy. “But this street has some nice shops and cafes. My favourite cafe is along here.” We climb once more and this stairway takes us to a far busier street next to a large 7-Eleven (naturally) with people pouring into what looks like a narrow alleyway on our right.

‘That’s the start of Old Street,” Cindy points out. “See? So busy.”

“Wow. That is paaaacked tight,” says Naomi. “Good idea to hold back on that one, Cindy.”

We turn left and wait at a bus stop below another observation deck, many tourists moving around above us. Once we’re on the next bus I ask about Jinguashi.

“Do you know about the gold mining history?” Cindy asks me. I shake my head and she begins to tell me how the small town is known for it’s gold and copper mines. I remember Michael and Pauline mentioning a gold museum earlier. “When the Japanese ruled here it was one of the biggest copper mines in the world,” she explains. “You can still see all the old mining tunnels there. We will go to a waterfall called the golden waterfall. All the metals from the river make it this interesting colour. I think you will enjoy taking a photo there.”

“Thank you, Cindy. It must be so nice for you to visit this area again. Do you like America?”

“It’s okay. I’ve been there just one year. Before that, I was a nanny in Sweden. Three years. It was wonderful there.” As she talks her hand fiddles with a necklace underneath her white blouse.

“I’d love to go to Sweden,” I remark.

“It’s so beautiful. I had a really good relationship with my employer in Sweden. He died just two months ago. It’s so sad… ” She continues to play with her necklace. I can’t quite make it out with the blouse covering, but it looks like a pearl necklace. “USA employer is just okay. Maybe it’s time to come back to Taiwan forever soon…”

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Our winding journey ends and we exit the bus. The golden waterfall in front of us is not huge, but definitely eye catching with it’s unusual colour. There are a few tourists taking pictures and among them I notice Michael and Pauline. They spot me too, and look a little surprised, turning to each other and murmuring.

“Didn’t take long to bump into you two again!” I say as I walk towards them.

“Hi Greg! So pretty, isn’t it?” We’re stopping here and then off to the gold museum. Are you here with friends?” Pauline says, looking over at Naomi and Cindy.

“New friends,” I reply. “Friends of a friend, you could say.”

“Ahh… very interesting.” She certainly seems interested, her eyes still on Naomi and Cindy.

“I better go join them actually, rude of me to wonder off when Cindy is showing me around!”

Michael and Pauline look at each other as if something has been confirmed. They’re acting a little strangely so I say goodbye and leave them to it, although they look like they want to talk more. Naomi, Cindy and I take a few pictures before moving on to explore some of the old mining tunnels. We spend an hour walking around, at which point I realise I should really get back to the hotel and work on my kimchi article. We agree to meet up in the hotel lobby later in the afternoon.

“Bring your stomach,” Cindy recommends. “Many things for you to try.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I always do.”

*

A few hours later I wait for Naomi in the hotel lobby. Cindy left earlier to spend time at her favourite cafe, so we’ll meet her at the entrance to Old Street. I make a little small talk with Winnie who is tidying up the dining area.

“Some people were asking about your friend. Cindy,” Winnie tells me. “They asked me if she is staying here. They were very eager to know. Maybe you tell Cindy?”

“Oh, sure. What were their names?”

“They didn’t want to tell me. It was a couple. An American woman and American-Taiwanese man. The girl had kind of red hair. So if you tell that to your friend maybe she will know who they are. She’s probably in that cafe again.” Winnie sounds distinctly unimpressed by Cindy’s frequent trips to Daydreams and Tea, which seeing as they don’t know each other is a little odd.

The couple from the train… They walked right past us earlier. Why didn’t they stop Cindy then? Do they not know what she looks like? Why do they want to know about her whereabouts then? The woman was on some kind of mission, and appeared quite stressed about it. The man seemed to be there more for support. What has Cindy got to do with this?

“Thank you, Winnie. I’ll pass it on.”

Naomi arrives and we climb the stairways up to the entrance of Old Street. We talk a little about Naomi and Josh’s modelling experiences in Taiwan as we climb. Naomi reiterates how well they are looked after at Bangka Models compared to other foreign models and their agencies.

“They found Josh an excellent billboard booking for this week. Too bad he couldn’t come join us. But he doesn’t like the Taiwanese food too much and we’re about to go eat everything Jiufen has to offer… so maybe for the best!”

We look for Cindy once we reach the top of the stairs. I see a glimpse of auburn in front of me and spot the mystery couple outside the 7-Eleven. What’s going on with these two?

“Kevin, I want to get some use. Let’s go in here,” the woman says. They enter the convenience store and I wonder what she means by ‘get some use’, but Naomi distracts my train of thought by excitedly pointing out some Spirited Away soft toys on sale in nearby shop.

“Ooh, so cute!” Naomi cries. “I must buy a No-Face before we leave!”

We meet Cindy and enter the narrow Old Street, food stalls and shops packed tight all the way down. Cindy begins to point out various snacks that are either her personal favourites, or popular choices with locals and tourists alike. The street is still quite busy. There are tour groups all over the place. I feel sorry for the poor guides trying to hustle their groups through. Sleeping dogs lie near the entrance ways to shops or in the shops themselves. The shops are full of souvenirs, packaged sweets, handbags and small ocarinas which seem to be everywhere. Cindy informs me that Jiufen is well known for the wind-instruments and they make great souvenirs. We lose Naomi for a minute who gets caught up in an expensive leather goods shop, eyeing up various items. When she catches up we stop outside a stall selling gelatinous translucent dumplings with a red centre – Cindy refers to them as red meat dumplings. Now that we’ve spent a little time together, she’s definitely becoming friendlier. She seemed somewhat wary of me earlier in the day.

“You must try these and then soon we’ll have some fish balls in soup… Then definitely we’ll buy some taro and sweet potato balls and also a kind of peanut and ice cream roll…”

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One hour and plenty of food pictures later, we’re all fit to burst.

“Well you’re certainly living up to your website name… I’m feeling pretty wonderstuffed myself right now,” says Naomi.

“Let’s stop at a cafe,” Cindy suggests. Naomi and I agree (walking is hard after all those snacks) and we stop at the first bubble tea cafe we come across and take a seat.

“We will go to a proper tea house too, of course,” Cindy says after we order three taro bubble teas.

“Ooh, yes!” Naomi exclaims. “I want to go to the Spirited Away one! And Greg, are you just going to stay tonight or should we book you in another night at the hotel? I’m going back to Taipei on Thursday. Cindy will probably stay a while longer.”

“Oh, that’s right,” I reply. “Cindy, you have some friends here you’re catching up with, right?” Cindy just nods. “I think I will stay another night. I’ll talk to Winnie when we get back to the hotel.” Our bubble teas arrive, vibrant purple with plenty of black tapioca balls visible at the bottom. Cindy reaches into her handbag and pulls out a container full of small yellow spheres. She puts a spoonful of them into her drink and stirs.

“What are those, Cindy?” I ask.

“They’re popping pearls. Little balls with juice inside. You can add them to bubble tea. These ones are mango and they’re my favourite.”

“I’ve seen you carrying those around since we arrived, you must really love them!” Naomi chimes in.

“I take them everywhere. Here, try some.” She offers me and Naomi a spoonful. I start drinking, sucking up tapioca pearls and popping pearls with my straw. The tapioca balls are chewy and the popping pearls burst in my mouth, the mango flavour strong and sweet. By the time we finish our teas it’s dark outside and Old Street has taken on a new appearance with all the red lanterns lit up, strung along both sides of the street. It really does feel whimsical, and we walk at a leisurely pace until we reach the famous A Mei Tea House. It’s completely packed so we go for a beer at a nearby bar instead.

“We can try again tomorrow, hopefully it’ll be a bit quieter,” suggests Cindy.

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After a couple of beers I leave Cindy and Naomi to it and make my way back to the hotel. I arrange an extra night’s stay with Winnie before going to my room. I manage to finish off my EAT article and email it in. My phone beeps with a new message as I click send. It’s Josh.

Tired of my sister yet? Hope you’re having fun!

We message back and forth for a while before I decide to call it a night. I realise I completely forgot to mention the mystery couple to Cindy so I’ll pass it on in the morning. I’m curious to find out what they want, and if Cindy doesn’t know who they are then I’m sure she will be too.

© Intrigue Inn

 

The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 1

I stand cautiously above a staircase on Taipei Main Station’s ground floor, like a nervous swimmer about to dive into the deep end for the first time. The labyrinthine confusion of passageways one floor below me that make up the principal metro, train and bus hub of Taipei present a daunting challenge. I’m tempted to procrastinate by exploring the station’s food court one floor above, but I don’t really have time. I can’t help it. I generally end up following my nose. It’s lead me all the way from England to Taiwan, after all. But I can’t imagine I’ll find any hunched over grandmothers cooking up a generations old recipe on the floor above. It’s probably all franchise restaurants, and that generally goes against the content of my website, Wonderstuffed. 

Around me there are a few scattered food stalls selling fruit, mochi and souvenirs, as well as a 7-Eleven of course – they’re ubiquitous in Taiwan. Close by is an ice cream stand and the young man working it has spotted my hesitation and wondering eye and flashes me a smile that I can’t resist. I head over and buy a black sesame soft serve from him. It’s the second time I’ve tried black sesame ice cream and I can’t get enough of it. No more stalling, though. I need to get going. One last smile from the soft serve man and then down I go.

I manage to find the MRT blue line after a long underground walk and laugh aloud as I realise my destination, Ximen, is only one stop away. Well, I’m here now. I swipe a Hello Kitty themed transit card through the turnstiles and stand in line for my metro before boarding a shiny carriage. The Ximen-ding district is an entertainment area full of shops, restaurants and bars. Sounds like there’ll be plenty to explore until my tour of a night market later this evening.

Minutes later, I exit the Ximen station and find myself surrounded by high rise neon and crowds of people. I make my way across the street and walk into an area with a series of market stalls selling clothes on both sides of the street. A large red octagonal building in front catches my attention. I walk around it and come across a group of open air bars. A string of fairy lights has been placed around the outdoor area of the bar nearest me. Below the lights, a svelte waiter bounces away disinterestedly after taking an order from a man alone at a table. I look up and notice the bar is called G Bar. Aha! I’ve stumbled upon a gay district. It’s definitely refreshing to accidentally walk into an area of openly gay establishments – that certainly wasn’t the case with my previous stop, Korea. Taiwan is known to be more open minded towards homosexuality than many of it’s Asian counterparts, with the constitutional court ruling in favour of same sex marriage last year.

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I walk in and the bouncy waiter offers me the drinks menu, an electro-lounge version of Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long playing softly as I enter.

“Go for the Zhujiang beers, they’re not bad. And it’s two for one,” the man who has just been served tells me in an American accent from his table nearby.

I smile and glance over the menu quickly. “Oh, I’ll just have one of these non-alcoholic cocktails… A Virgin Mary, please.” The waiter nods and bounces away.

“Interesting choice. Laying off the alcohol this evening?” The American asks.

“Ah, my love of food is enough of a vice to be getting on with,” I tell him. “So I rarely drink.”

“Very sensible of you.”

I take a look at the man properly and almost do a double take. He has alarmingly symmetrical looks, very model-like. He looks to be in his late twenties. A good ten years younger than me, at least.

“Feel free to take a seat,” he says, motioning to the three empty chairs at his table. I have no reason not to, especially not with those looks, so I join him.

“Foodie, then?” He asks.

“I suppose. It’s what I’m here for.”

“Oh, more pleasure than business?”

“Both, actually. My business is food. Or writing about it, should I say. I have a website, Wonderstuffed. It’s a glorified food blog really, but I’m lucky enough to be able to live off it these days.”

“Wow, that’s nice. Wonderstuffed? Let’s see… ” He flicks through his smartphone, brings up the website and scrolls through a couple of pages. “Oh, this looks good. Professional! Lot’s of… people stories?”

I nod and smile. “I like to focus on the people behind the food almost as much as the food itself. Provide some background info, a bit of history and context. A lot of my time travelling has been spent interacting with the people who cook or own the restaurants I eat at. That doesn’t just enrich my experience as a traveller, but hopefully the reader’s experience too.”

“Very neat,” he says, as my drink arrives. “I’m Josh, by the way.” He holds out his hand.

“Greg,” I say, shaking it. “Nice to meet you. What are you up to in Taiwan?”

“I’ve been working here a while. Six months nearly.”

“Teaching?”

“Oh no, I’m with a modelling agency.”

“Of course,” I laugh. “That does not surprise me.”

“What surprises me is how you can drink that stuff,” he says, pointing at my mocktail. “I mean, individually I like Tabasco and I like Worcestershire sauce. But with liquid ketchup? No m’aam. Guess you grow to like it? I could say that for a for a few Taiwanese dishes.”

“If you’re beginning a debate on Taiwanese food, well, I could settle into this chair for the night.”

“Oh really? And what’s your favourite?”

“Well, I’ve only been here for a couple of days. Had the most amazing beef noodle soup yesterday at a tiny, inconspicuous restaurant. The owner is taking me around the nearby night market a bit later, actually. We ended up talking for quite a while.”

“For the website? Or for your own interests?” He laughs.

“Ah, he has a certain charm… he’s just a genuine, humble man dedicated to his restuarant. So, where do you stay for work? Does the agency provide you with a place for yourself?” I ask.

“They do. Small place about five minutes from here. Close to Lungshan temple. The agency arranged it. It’s not too bad, save for the occasional flying cockroach. It only happened once,” he adds, noting my expression. “And luckily it flew into my sister’s face, not mine!”

“That’s… horrendous. Your sister is here with you also?”

“Yes, she’s working with the agency, too. We came over together.”

“Really? Good genes,” I comment.

“Oh, we’re nothing too special in the States, but over here our look goes over well. Blue eyes. Blonde.”

“And it’s been a good experience?”

“Yeah, absolutely. Ready to go home soon but I’ll miss this place after a while I expect.”

“Where’s home?”

“Rochester. Ever been to the US?”

“A couple of times. I’m keen to do a big road trip.”

“Brits always tell me that. Well, I’m glad. At least you want to visit! Some people are so anti-US right now they look at vacationing elsewhere.” He finishes his drink and as he does I recognise Stevie Nicks’ carefree vocals on a remix of Dreams. Fleetwood Mac are one my favourite bands and generally remixes don’t do any of their songs justice, but this is really well done – not overproduced.

“What’s up?” Josh asks after ordering another Zhujiang.

“I just really like this remix. Never heard it before.”

He nods and holds up a finger indicating I should wait, takes his phone from his pocket and after clicking on something holds it up on the air. It’s an app to recognise music, one of those things I would never think to download but really should.

“There we go… what’s your number? I’ll message you the name of it.”

Oh, I see. Smart.

I give him my number and we chat a bit more about our jobs and impressions of Taipei, before I realise I have to meet Freddy soon. I thank Josh for the conversation and settle up my bill.

“I actually have to meet my sister for dinner,” Josh says.  You’re going to Ningxia, right?”

“Yeah, near Zongshan station.”

“Right. My sister and I are eating around Zhongshan so if you want another beer, or Virgin Mary should I say, you have my number now. Feel free to message me!”

“Okay, great. I’m planning to visit Jiufen tomorrow but no need for an early night I suppose.” Josh seems quite direct, and I like that.

“Oh, no way! My sister is going there tomorrow for a night or two. She’s meeting a friend there. I should ask her if she has any tips. Her friend knows Jiufen well.”

“That sounds great, I appreciate it! It’s a bit of a last minute decision so I need to find accommodation if I want to stay the night. I’ve heard so much about how charming it is at night with all the lanterns lit up.”

“Me too. I’ve not been. But I know it inspired the setting of some anime movie…”

Spirited Away, I believe.”

“That’s the one. Alright Greg, maybe catch you later!”

*

It doesn’t take me long to walk to Ningxia night market. I spot Freddy’s square face and black rimmed glasses amongst a throng of people eager to get their hands on various street foods. He greets me with a small nod and a firm handshake.

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“You are always dressed so smart!” Freddy Kuo remarks. It’s true. I usually like to dress in a well-ironed shirt and chino combo, even when I’m being a tourist. “I hope you are hungry,” he says. There’s a lot to eat here. It’s not big like Shillin market – that’s the biggest and most famous. But many locals like to come here and enjoy oyster omelette or taro cake.” Freddy speaks very good English, in part due to personal studies and also his regular visits to stay with his sister now living in Melbourne. He told me many details about his close family yesterday, which I made notes on to use for my article about his restaurant, Kuo Noodles. Freddy is Han Chinese, but considers himself completely Taiwanese. His father identifies as both Taiwanese and Chinese having come to Taiwan at the age of seven, along with roughly two million other Han Chinese immigrants after the Chinese civil war.

I listened carefully to what he had to say about beef noodle soup, a Taiwanese staple. The Taiwanese style of beef noodle soup – using red braised beef, is made especially tender using ingredients including sherry and star anise. This style became popular with Han Chinese veterans who had fled to Taiwan. I imagine recipes shared between close knit communities, being adapted using different local ingredients to what they were used to. Freddy’s father had learnt the recipe from his veteran father and he and his wife set up Kuo Noodles in the seventies. With nearly forty years using a tried and tested method, slight perfections being made every so often, no wonder I was still craving the soup 24 hours later. The restaurant does offer a few other items including pan fried buns and pork noodle dishes, but the main attraction is the soup. Two options are available – spicy and regular. I opted for the spicy soup, deep red in colour with fresh noodles and generous chucks of beef  falling apart in my mouth the second I began chewing. Freddy’s mother came over with a small version of the regular soup just so I could compare. The restaurant itself is small and nondescript. The best ones often are. The only indication of happy customers is a board on the wall near the counter with around 40 photos of worldwide travellers and Taiwanese celebrities who had paid a visit, all smiling alongside Freddy or his mother.

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Freddy and I walk past stands selling clothes and mobile phone covers, the traffic and noise increasing as we enter the main strip. It’s a compact market with stalls and and sit down eateries.

“We can sit down, if you want,” Freddy tells me, speaking a little louder as we become part of the crowd. We pass stalls serving beef noodle soup, squid on a stick and glazed fruit, strong aromas filling the air. Freddy points to a small eatery. “This one has my favourite oyster omelette. Shall we try it?” I agree and let him lead the way.

Five minutes later, our omelettes hit the table, filled with oysters, scallions and other vegetables covered in a sauce that Freddy tells me is mainly ketchup, soy sauce and vinegar. We start eating and suddenly I hear a commotion behind me. I turn around to see a small fight happening, looks like it’s between a customer and a stall owner.

“Oh… that’s not so usual. Sorry for you to see that,” Freddy tells me, concerned. I tell him not to worry. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen often in Taiwan. Maybe it’s gangsters…” He wonders.

“In public?”

He nods. “Most people in Taiwan don’t come into contact with the gangsters unless they owe money – maybe gambling issues, or if it’s for prostitution. Otherwise you don’t see them, ever. Maybe the stall owner became involved with something?”

The fight breaks up after a few minutes and the crowd dissipates. We finish our omelettes and continue to explore, Freddy sharing more info on his background and grandparents as we walk, of which I take a mental note. After some fermented bean curd (which Freddy warns me is not popular amongst foreigners but I love) and taro waffles we finish the tour. I thank Freddy and promise him I’ll be making another trip to Kuo Noodles before I leave Taiwan. The night is still young so I message Josh who isn’t too far away.

*

I meet Josh at a cocktail bar along Zhongshan North Road, roughly halfway in-between the market and my hotel.

“Hey, I bought you a non alcoholic one,” he says as he greets me at the bar, his blue eyes dazzling. I thank him and we take a seat.

“I was thinking,” he says, “There are some interesting themed restaurants around here, you know? Would they work on your site? There’s a restaurant in Ximen where everything is served in toilet bowels. I wonder what your readers would make of that…”

“No way,” I shake my head. “A mention maybe, but no need to go to a novelty restaurant that’s likely more style over substance. Is a soup served in a pretend toilet bowl actually going to taste good or is it all just for the quirky Instagram moment?” I pause for a second, hearing myself speak. “Pretentious?”

Josh shrugs. “Probably just your age,” he laughs.

I give him a mock scandalised look. I’ve just turned 40 and I think I dealt with it extremely well, so I’m not bothered.

“I showed your website to Naomi – my sister,” Josh says. “I didn’t realise how popular it was when looking closer!”

“Ah, it’s taken a while to build up.”

“Very detailed articles, as you said. I like how informative they are. Different to what the bloggers normally write.”

“Yeah, I didn’t really want to go down that flashy graphics  ‘top ten things to eat in Taipei’ route that seems pretty en vogue.”

“That’ll be you age again,” he teases, taking a swig of beer. “Just kidding,” he adds as I raise an eyebrow. “You’re right, that is the style of the social media friendly blogs. But hey, you took a different approach and look how it turned out! All those hits! Don’t you love it when a gamble pays off?”

“Well, thanks. I’ve been lucky. It was noticed by a researcher for EAT – big food mag in the UK. Bit hipster. But some interesting reads. They offered me a monthly write up, full page. That lead to a weekly column on Miriam Romaine’s travel food website, which was really, really amazing and now it all supports each other, I suppose.”

“I’m impressed. You need to try the soup dumplings here. The xiaolongbao. I gotta be careful, actually. My agency won’t be impressed if I start ballooning due to too many of those.”

“They’re quite strict?”

“They are, but I won’t complain. They look after Naomi and I well, and that security is something other Americans modelling here with different agencies haven’t had, from what I’ve heard.”

“They get shafted? With pay?”

“Yeah, mostly. Promise of big work, magazines and billboards, but ends up being really shady. Contracts not adhered to. Or models not reading what they sign a lot of the time. That’s a problem, too. We read everything through very carefully. I think this should lead to big things!” He says it confidently, but I can tell he has his fingers figuratively crossed.

“That’s a pity. Oh well, I’m glad it’s worked out for you. Well, look at you. I can see how you’d do well here. And those Taiwanese men must be all over you.”

“It’s been a good time…. I admit,” he laughs. “Listen, I spoke to my sister about Jiufen. Her friend could be a real asset to your website if you plan on writing about the place. She knows the town and I’m sure she could help out with food recommendations. You should definitely meet up with them. You wanted to stay the night right?” I nod. “Great, well I asked Naomi to check if there’s any room left at their hotel so we’ll see what she says. Her friend has been there for a couple of days already. Catching up with old acquaintances I believe.”

“Oh, you really didn’t have to do that.”

“No problem. You wouldn’t mind? I assumed you would be keen to network but you don’t have to meet up with them. Even if you stay at the same hotel!”

“No, no, that sounds great!”

I’m always keen to network and meet new people. It really adds to not just my personal experience but to Wonderstuffed also. As Josh says, this friend could be very helpful. It crosses my mind that spending time with the sister of a man I’ve just met and was certainly attracted to might be a little strange, but spending my time in Jiufen with a little company would be nice.

Josh checks his phone and smiles. “You’re in luck. There’s availability at their hotel. 1900 NTD for the night. Should I confirm?”

“Yes, that would be fine, go ahead. Please thank your sister.”

“I will. Put a pic of Naomi on your site as a thank you. She’ll love the free publicity,” he jokes. “Shame I can’t come now, but not worth skipping on my bookings for the next couple of days. They’re paying well. Maybe I can come join later in the evening, I’ll see how tired I am.”

We chat a little longer, with increased levels of flirting and a few more jabs at my age, until I check my watch and realise I should head home. We say goodbye and I put my earphones in and listen to the Fleetwood Mac remix Josh found for me as I walk back to my hotel.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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