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, Wanderstuffed. 

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, Wanderstuffed. 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. Wanderstuffed? 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 restaurant. 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 Wanderstuffed 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.

 

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