Kaohsiung 高雄 is the second largest city in Taiwan, located in the south of the island, just below the tropic of cancer. Because of this, the temperature upon arrival was much more like the south of France in summer and a nice change from the current cold temperatures in Penghu, (15Degrees).
Fiona and I left first, and after a ridiculously short flight of 40 minutes, were picked up by her 2nd uncle and son of 34. It was already around 4pm, so the city looked beautiful in the evening light as we made our way to B and Q, ( yes they have them here).
From here we were taken to the family’s tofu factory outside of the city where we met up with Fiona’s older cousin and her family. Their flat is on the top floor of the factory and the husband had one of the more impressive sound systems I had seen including a valve amp and around 5 different CD/DVD/Blue ray gizmos. They also had an exercise machine in the shape of a horse’s saddle which you sat on and jiggled you about. There were various different settings including gallop, canter, trot, and something akin to a camel or elephant.
We met a lot more of the family here, and headed to a restaurant for the evening meal. The restaurant had an old train carriage outside which had been built into the establishment. It was also the end of year do for the tofu factory so there were about 7 large tables set out, and boxes of wine on each. Course after course came out, including some lovely, small battered balls which turned out to be squid beaks, and then a giant roast duck to follow. I was given slabs of breast meat which is considered to be the worst cut of meat here. They were laughing that I only wanted the breast meat, and joked that they sell that to the foreigners and keep the best bits for themselves. I was the one laughing. A karaoke set up was sat in the centre of the restaurant, which meant that we were accompanied by badly made backing tracks and wailing for most of the night.
In the evening we headed to Fiona’s old family home in Cishan which is a town 1 hours drive from the city and famous for its banana’s. The house is an original Japanese building from around the time when they colonised taiwan, and is very pretty and interesting. We didn’t stop here for long, and were soon back in the car and travelling to the new family home owned by her aunt, just outside the town of Cishan in the country.
This new house was a giant 3 storey building which had plenty of rooms to sleep in. The next morning I woke and looked out at beautiful blue skies and a blazing sun. The house also has its own rice paddy and banana plantation next door which made it look very exotic and asian. After breakfast we went back to the original family house in cishan and did some cleaning of the house which is part of the tradition of chinese new year. After this we headed out into the town to get some ice cream from a famous shop with two of fiona’s female cousins from Taipei. I had the local speciality of banana ice cream and then went rather over the top by having a coffee with a ball of ice cream on the top. The stalls were all being built at this stage ready for the coming two weeks of chinese new year. After a brief look around, we headed back and played a few hours a Mahjong. I’ve not played since the summer in France, so took a bit of time getting back into it, and it was especially difficult as I had to learn a whole new vocabulary of words for naming the tiles.
My brain had to work overtime converting all the symbols into numbers, and then converting them into speech, all before the other player took the tile i wanted. After the games, I spent half an hour going through the tiles over and over, naming them in chinese as quick as I could, knowing that I would be playing a lot more of this in the coming days, and could potentially win or lose literally 10’s on NT $. Fi and her cousins had bought a box of chicken feet at the market and a bag of chicken head combs. Both were chewy with a hint of chicken flavour, but in my mind, not worth the effort of chewing.
While we’re on the subject of weird things that I ate, I have also tried pigs ears (chewy), stomach lining (surprisingly nice), intestine (nice but doesn’t look great), squid mouths (yummy but crunchy), sea cucumber (looks like a vegetable but pretty flavourless), chicken testicles (small, soft, and similar to tofu and not tough like I was expecting), and fish sperm (large and again similar to a fishy tofu).
Throughout chinese new year we were treated to some amazing cooking by big uncles wife, with each meal being a banquet of food with plates and plates of dishes being set out on the table. Because there were so many of us, (around 15 for meal times) we would often stand around the table while others were seated, dipping into the various dishes. They tried to trick me with the chicken testicles, saying they were tofu sausages, but I could see through this charade straight away. Still, I ate them without much bother and actually quite enjoyed them. I think they were quite impressed by this, and I made a point of showing my new found skill at eating weird things by asking for more.
Chinese new year is so long that i’m not quite sure of the major days in the festival, but it started on the 23rd, and runs for something like 2 weeks, ending with the lantern festival. The first few days include cleaning the house and preparing for it, while the wives usually spend it with their husbands family. Then there is the main meal, a few days in, which is traditionally cooked at home and is a chance for the entire family to get together with relatives coming from all over the country to join. There are several pi pi? events which involves praying to the family’s ancestors and various deities. Most houses will have a shrine set up, and it’s normal to have incense burning for the entire duration of new years. On the day of the feast, we did several prayers to the shrine using incenses sticks then burning paper money in a metal bin outside for the gods. This bit is fun although it can’t be good for the environment. Fireworks and bangers are also set of throughout the period, and you couldn’t go 20 mins without hearing a bang. At night it felt like being in a war zone, but it was amazing to look out at the nights sky and be able to see fireworks every few minutes.
After the family meal we played more Mahjong, this time with a pro family member who could guess the tile just by touching it. I had practiced this, but could only guess the family of tile. Despite his clearly superior skills, I managed to win 5/8 of the games and am considering a new found gambling career.
One evening we drove to see some of Mei’s old school friends. We were lead upstair into an outdoor attic which was adorned by thousands of CD’s, empty liquor bottles, and a gigantic Karaoke set up. Before diner was even served, the men were cueing up songs they wanted to sing. It was pretty cold at first, but once food was served and several shots of white spirit had been drunk, I was much warmer, and close to singing. Luckily, the English section of the book was filled with songs I had never heard of, or were ridiculous christmas songs. I was even persuaded to have a little dance with the host’s wife.
The next day the entire family took a trip into the countryside to visit the gave of their grandfather. It was a large plot on a steep hillside which was a bit of a trek up. The scenery was similar t0 how I would imagine Vietnam to look like, and Rambo wouldn’t have looked out of place here. It was amazingly sunny with little wind or humidity, but did result in me having a red face and arms for the big meal in the evening. After an hour on the hillside doing more pi pi for the ancestors and serving him a meal of fruit, green tea, and lighting a cigarette for him to smoke, we burnt some more paper money and then returned home to read, relax, and gamble.
In the early evening, Iona and I were driving to the auntie and uncle’s duck farm which had thousands of white geese, ducks, and loads of cute goslings. We retuned home to the entire family having congregated. This was the first time that they were all in one place, and there must gave been around 5o men, women, and children. The meal was held at the big house out the back, next to the rice paddy.. There were about ~6 large tables laid out and they had employed some caterers for the event. There were many great dishes, including some of the largest prawns i’ve seen, and it is normal for each person to go round each table and say Happy New Year and then down a shot. I was pretty tired of saying 新年快樂 by the end. The meal was rounded off by a slideshow of old family pictures which Fi had scanned, and then we had some singing from Iona which resulted in lots of the women crying.
The last few days saw some of the family go back to their homes, and we stayed on, living between the old japanese house and the big house in the country. There were loads of cute children around, and it was my first experience of actually holding a small person, which made me feel all paternal. The days would be spent reading, playing Mahjong, or entertaining the kids, something which is especially easy. Fiona got them all dancing while I shouted out commands of what to mime, and then I taught the kids how to juggle (unsuccessfully), do my magic rope trick (successful) and my one card trick (successful). I’m even going to appear in the kids winter homework for having taught them magic. In the evenings we would make the short walk to the street festival which was packed each night, filled with food stalls, and games. I had a go at darts,and shooting a BB gun into ballons but only won a rubbish key chain.
It was an amazing experience, and I felt immediately at home with her family who were all extremely nice to me. My skills at Mahjong meant that I was sufficiently entertained and got to interact with all the family members a lot. The scenery was beautiful, and reminded me of the Dordogne, and it is a shame that Penghu is just above the tropic of cancer, but I hear that the summer time is unbearable so i’ll just have to wait for it to get warmer here. Apologies for all the mistakes. This post is a bit of a monster.