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Lunar New Year in Taipei

I do not know how other foreigners spend Chinese New Year in Taipei, but as far as I am concerned, this year has not been much more exciting than the last (which I mentioned in another post). I think that if you have no family or girlfriend / boyfriend in Taiwan, it is quite hard to find something to do during the Spring Festival. The city seems to come to a standstill. Even some coffee shops, restaurants and Eslite bookstores are closed. 

Yesterday evening I took a walk around to see if there was something going on. I have to confess that I was quite disappointed. Perhaps I went to the wrong places; but I knew of no others. 

There was no particularly festive, special atmosphere, no excitement in the air, no happiness emanating from the people, and there were not even remarkable street decorations. How comes it that during the most important festival in Taiwan, everything seems so somber, and a veil of melancholy descends on this city? Or have I just imagined all this?

Maybe I am indeed imagining. The Spring Festival is a period for family reunions. I think of family gatherings in Taiwan as very formal, stiff parties. I have already written about what I consider to be a certain ritualism and attachment to social roles in Chinese/Taiwanese families, much of which has its roots in Confucian traditions. Family meals are occasions in which the elders discuss about the younger, and compare them: job and marriage are two of the subjects most talked about. 

Only yesterday, the Chinese newspaper The Global Times published an article about a man who passed out while on a train back to his hometown, because he learned that his parents had arranged for him a series of blind dates. This is, of course, an extreme example. But it's an extreme example of something that seems to happen in many households. Whoever among the younger has no job, no boyfriend / girlfriend, or isn't married by what is considered to be the "right" age, may face pressure. Certainly, this doesn't happen in all families. But I do imagine that it does happen in many of them, and that the filial duty to make parents proud is strong, and is keenly felt. Or am I biased?

Later in the evening I went to Xinyi District. I had a strange encounter near Taipei 101. I was about to take a picture of the building when a girl stopped and asked me: "Do you need any help?"
"No, I'm just taking some pictures," I said smiling, and I thought she'd go away. But she didn't. 
"Where are you from?" she asked. 
"I am from Italy."
There followed a series of questions, "Do you work here? How long have you lived in Taiwan? Are you here with your family?"
Whenever I didn't give her a detailed answer, she looked annoyed.
"Do you want to go and have something to drink?" she suddenly asked.
I was baffled. What could I reply? "I've come here to take pictures," I answered vaguely.
"You can come back tomorrow to take pictures," she insisted. "Taipei 101 is closed now. You should come again tomorrow morning or afternoon."
"I just want to take some pictures."
"But it's closed now, you can come tomorrow," she said, somewhat angrily. She simply wouldn't listen to what I was saying.
Then she began talking about herself: her job, her ex-boyfriend, her travels. I just hoped she'd stop at some point, but I felt she could go on for ages. 
"I think I should go now," I interrupted her. "I want to visit Longshan Temple."
"So you want to visit Longshan Temple?" She looked disappointed.
"Yes, I do."
"Can you give me your phone number?"
"Okay," I said reluctantly. I didn't want to be rude.
As we spoke she became increasingly assertive. She patted on my arm as if we were good friends, and she laughed out loud at things I said, which were not supposed to be funny. I began to feel uncomfortable and just wanted to leave as quickly as possible. But she dragged on and on. 
"Listen, I've got to go, it's getting late," I said, quite impatiently now.
"Okay. After you visit Longshan Temple, call me and we can talk. I am looking for a job in Europe, maybe you can help me."
I couldn't believe my ears.
"I think it'll be a little too late when I come back home" (it was already 10 pm).
She stared at me as if she couldn't understand my words. 
"It's not late," she said.
I realised there was no point in arguing with her at all. I put on a fake smile. "Okay."
"So, you go to Longshan Temple, then you call me, okay?"
But I saw in her eyes she sensed I was not going to do it. 
What kind of person would talk to strangers on the street, in the middle of the evening, behaving in such an intrusive, almost aggressive manner? Perhaps I am too suspicious. While in the MRT, I blocked her number.

I went to Longshan Temple, one of the oldest ones of Taipei, built in 1738. During the Qing Era, the temple was not in Taipei walled city, but was located outside, in the settlement of Mengjia (or Bangka). Now it is part of Taipei's Wanhua District.

Temples seem to be the liveliest places on Chinese New Year. There were a lot of people, and the queue of those who wanted to go inside to pray was long. I took a few pictures, and then I left.

Perhaps it is only natural that one doesn't have any particular feelings during a festival one has never celebrated in his own home country. But so far, my impression of Lunar New Year was not one of happiness and excitement, as I usually see during New Year in Europe. 


  1. It's quite interesting how you form this impression of Chinese New Year when experiencing it outside the family context. The last two years I've gone to Taiwan at this time of year because a) the weather isn't too hot b) I feel I should as a son-in-law and c) people are happier this time of year. The reason I feel people are happier is less to do with the family gathering and more about actually having time off! I know a family friend who works almost 365 days a year, due to the family business, but at New Year he gets a few days off.

    In my wife's family, there are tensions from (unmarried people mostly) but mostly it's pretty happy and free, a chance to go away together usually into the mountains. The biggest tension is around red envelopes from my perspective. Many people do not want to go home because they end up spending a lot of money on relatives and parents, as each year should be higher than the year before (and people often keep records). I think there are always extreme examples of very traditional families who are angry at children for not getting married, and these stories shout louder in the media. The days around new year weren't formal either, there were no rituals beyond the bai bai to the ancestors and the giving of red envelopes. Mostly it was about eating, then eating the leftovers then eating the leftovers of the leftovers.

    Perhaps in Italy it is very happy at Christmas time but I don't feel so in England, especially in the days before when everybody is very stressed to buy presents. And when I hear people talk about their Christmas they are never very happy stories, it's also some form of obligation to go back. But I've heard from foreigners in England that Christmas time is a sad and boring time of year for them as it is family time (so you miss family) and everything is closed (so there's nothing to do either). Perhaps you are experiencing something similar, as it seems quite a happy and relatively relaxed time to me, albeit one you're obliged to attend!

    Anyway, Happy New Year to you Aris!

  2. Haha, thanks for your comment, it's very interesting to read about your perspective.

    First of all, I want to point out that by ritualism I mean both collective actions like the ones you mentioned (gift-giving, praying etc.), and also a series of behavioural patterns that depend on the social role one has in the family. These behavioural patterns are 'invisible', and can mostly be observed in the way people talk with each other as well as in their body language. The gift-giving ritual in which money is tied to the specific type of relationship and therefore social role is a good example of ritualism, which also exists in the West. But in East Asia it is defined by much stricter social standards, as the concern about the amount of money and the old-young 'balance' show. I would have to spend some time with your wife's family in order to tell you whether I find them too formal and stiff or rather easy-going and relaxed, so I can't say anything about it, but it's good to know that you feel comfortable and happy with them.

    I think your comparison of the Lunar New Year with Christmas makes a lot of sense. Certainly, it's hard to generalise, I am sure that many families in the West during Christmas aren't happy. I personally feel the general atmosphere is happier, with a nice atmosphere, Christmas markets, decorations, the Christmas tree etc. But maybe it's just because I've been used to that since my childhood. Then the private moments inside the home may not be happy, depending on the relationship between the family members.

    In my own family there is also a level of formality, but I can always say what I want, and be myself, while I have the impression that in East Asia your role inside the family matters a lot in how the individual behaves. I'm not sure what you think about it.

    Happy New Year to you, too : )

  3. Maybe sometimes a girl who wants you to call her and spend the evening together is just that? No need to read too much into it, or did she not send any vibes?

  4. Hi taiwan,

    you're right, but I am not really looking for this kind of things, and I was also annoyed by her attitude. If I had answered her phone calls or if I had gone to have a drink with her, I would have done so completely against my instinct and feeling, and that would have made no sense. Maybe someone else would have been glad to be approached like that, but everyone is different, I guess. Happy new year, by the way : )

  5. I can relate to your post! The first CNY I spent in Taiwan was uneventful as well. And I did the same thing you did...I went to Longshan Temple.

    Taipei becomes a ghost town since most people head south to be with their family. Apparently, a large majority of people in Taipei are not originally from the city. I guess that's why I heard they predicted that over 3 million cars were on the freeway on CNY's eve.

    Enjoy the rest of your CNY holiday!! It's back to work in less than 2 days! :(

  6. You must live in Taiwan for a long time. I've seen some of your blogs. Your are almost 99.999% right about our things. Maybe some of ur relatives are from Taiwan or china. No one likes chinese new year in taiwan except those who are teenager or younger. The only exciting thing is getting a week long paid leave...

  7. Hi Constance,

    maybe I'm selfish, but it's somewhat comforting to know that someone else had the same feeling as me, I thought I was the only one. The good thing is that we don't celebrate the lunar new year in our own countries, so I personally didn't feel very sad to spend the evening alone. For me it was just a normal day like any other, just a little bit noisier because of the firecrackers outside. I went back home, had some milk tea, watched an interesting documentary and relaxed : )

    Enjoy your holiday, too : )

  8. @anonymous

    I've lived in Taiwan for a year and a half, is that a long time? : )

    Haha, no, I have no relatives from Taiwan or China, I am 100% European. My only source of knowledge about Taiwan are the books I read and the people I meet/interview. The best thing about living abroad is exploring a different culture, in my opinion.

    I hope you're enjoying your holiday. Happy New Year : )

  9. Care to elaborate which books about Taiwan u read? Thats a shame that it seems you know about Taiwan much better than a Taiwanese like me :(

  10. Next year, you should try to spent your Chinese New Year in southern Taiwan. A lot of people who live in Taipei have to go back to south to get together with their clan, visiting their relatives ,a family reunion dinner ,giving away red envelopes, firing up fireworks, lion dances...etc. I bet you will be surprise to see how different atmosphere between northern and southern during Chinese New Year:)


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