Night Markets Find Ways to Get with the Times

A vendor in Tonghua Night Market is happy to promote Uber Eats takeaways. Photo: Jules Quartly

Taiwan’s ubiquitous night markets are cleaning up their act, becoming more environmentally friendly, providing better entertainment options, and exploring new markets to accommodate the island’s changing demographics.

It’s twilight and drizzling, and the backlit signs in the Tonghua Night Market flicker as they come to life. Vendors set up their stalls as a motorbike with a pink foodpanda pannier weaves its way unsteadily through throngs of people on their way home from work or looking for something to munch on.

Seven nights a week, 365 days a year, the market starts up around 5 p.m. and officially closes at midnight – though many vendors stay open much longer. It’s a funky, traditional atmosphere, with soot-streaked walls, electric wires snaking all over the place, jerry-built ducts, and ad hoc fans venting smoke.

The area is always buzzing with energy, but right now change is in the air. Plans are afoot to upgrade the night market experience for a new generation, with the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) setting aside NT$69 million (US$2.44 million) to make them cleaner and more ecologically sound.

For some critics, it’s high time. They complain that most night markets are stuck in the past. Others argue that those that have recently received upgrades, like Shilin, have been stripped of their character and turned into mall-like food courts that house vendors in air-conditioned underground bunkers.

These detractors say that the huge number of tourists and heaving crowds make visiting night markets a fraught and exhausting experience, a little like being an unwilling participant in a mosh pit at a rock concert. Stories of vendors gouging unwitting tourists by jacking up the price of fruit or beef cubes haven’t improved the reputation of these markets, either.

One prominent voice in this conversation is the head of the Chinese Brand Rebuilding Association, Wang Fu-kai, who has written extensively about what he calls the decline of night markets. In an article published in the September edition of Foodnext magazine, he argues that night markets no longer support local tourism.

Tanghulu, or sugar coated tomatoes, at Tonghua Night Market. Photo: Jules Quartly

Many night market vendors have lost the motivation to innovate over the years, Wang says, because international tourism has brought in the crowds and no one is prepared to change a winning formula. Successful stores and food items are replicated in other locations across Taiwan, meaning that if you’ve seen one night market, you’ve basically seen them all.

Wang notes that restaurants in Taiwan have lately begun upping their game. He mentions the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand list, which recognizes eateries that provide high-quality, three-course meals and cost less than NT$1,000 (US$34). The 2020 edition of the guide lists 75 Bib Gourmand restaurants in Taipei and Taichung.

While standards at restaurants have improved, night markets have not kept up with the times. Wang argues that venues offering cheaper food and late-night entertainment must be upgraded, and  that the government should develop new tourist policies to help effect this change. Furthermore, vendors need to understand the benefits of market differentiation, so that night markets can regain their attractiveness, he says.

As if to heed Wang’s call, the EPA has set about making night markets once again the focus of Taiwan’s night life, in addition to being cleaner and more environmentally friendly. EPA Technical Specialist Lin Shu-yung says that the agency’s NT$69 million package focuses on reducing plastic use, lowering carbon emissions, and making night markets “clean and refreshing.”

According to Lin, “night markets used to cause concern among the general public” due to the trash, pollution, and general lack of hygiene. If night market operators do their bit to improve the situation, the EPA will match their efforts, he says.

Working with local vendors and night market associations, the EPA plans to promote the use of reusable tableware and provide discounts to customers who bring their own. Meanwhile, trash will be categorized into reusable resources, leftovers, and general waste. To reduce carbon emissions, night markets that receive funding will provide public shuttle services and switch to energy-saving LED lights.

And to make night markets cleaner and fresher, soot and smoke prevention devices and oil-water separators will be installed. There will also be improvements to the disposal of food sewage and to the cleanliness of public toilets. Vendors will be incentivized to cooperate by being awarded an “eco-friendly stall” label to display publicly.

To lead the way on rolling out green, hygienic gastronomy, the EPA has chosen 22 night markets across Taiwan as pilot sites for its “green remodeling” project. Gradually, the rest of Taiwan’s approximately 400 night markets will also be converted.

Lin says that rather than simply regulating night market operators, the EPA has instead chosen to promote the idea of green living for all through the revamping of both night markets and commercial districts, which he notes are “focal points in the daily lives of the general public.”

In August, the EPA and Keelung City Government held an “Eco-chic Party” at Keelung’s famous Miaokou Night Market. Attendees were encouraged to bring their own tableware and bags to the event, which also showcased the entertainment aspects of night markets through some lively lion dances, as well as singing and dancing performances.

Food not the only draw

Usually, night markets offer limited entertainment options. Most feature low-rent games aimed mainly at kids, such as mini-pinball contraptions from the 1960s, air rifles visitors can use to shoot at balloon targets, and makeshift pools filled with goldfish and shrimp they can try to fish out with small plastic poles. It’s nothing to write home about.

Dongdamen Night Market in Hualien represents a change in this regard. It hosts nightly shows, with pop stars doing promotional appearances, as well as buskers and dance performances. One section of the market is dedicated to carnival-style games like crossbow shooting. There’s also a carousel for the kids and a half-decent light show. Here the idea is to make the night market a center of the city’s night life and appeal to tourists at nearby Taroko Gorge.

Dongdamen has assimilated a number of smaller markets in the vicinity and provides decent parking nearby. The market itself has wide lanes, a well-established system for trash disposal, and a greater variety of foods than most night markets. It’s also foreigner friendly, with bilingual menus and signage, and provides more seating areas for people to savor their food, rather than resorting to eating as they walk.

In another attempt to stay relevant and appeal to Taiwan’s growing number of Muslim residents and visitors in recent years, Kaohsiung’s Liuhe Night Market has begun promoting halal food at its stalls. As part of the New Southbound Policy, the government has encouraged tourism from Southeast Asia and in 2019, an estimated two million visitors from this region visited Taiwan. Of these, approximately 15% are Muslims, who represent a potential collective spending power of NT$2 billion during their stay.

The Kaohsiung Mosque, one of the oldest and biggest in the country, serves as a center for the Muslim community in southern Taiwan. There are also many Muslims, mainly from Indonesia, working in refineries and factories and as domestic helpers.

In 2019, the government provided subsidies to a number of Liuhe Night Market stall holders to encourage them to apply for halal certification from the International Muslim Tourism Industry Development Association, guaranteeing that their food meets the requirements of Islamic law.

The COVID-19 era has prompted some new initiatives to maintain and even boost business at night markets and other commercial areas. The EPA’s Lin notes that the improvements to the consumer environment that his agency is helping to carry out are likely to reduce people’s reluctance to visit these public places during the pandemic. 

Ningxia Night Market in Taipei’s Datong district provides a good example of such improvements. It was nimble enough to cash in on the central government’s Triple Stimulus Vouchers, which came out in July. This program allowed both locals and many foreigners to pay NT$1,000 and receive NT$3,000 worth of vouchers, which were intended to spur consumption and stimulate an economy hit hard by COVID-19.   

Lamb and glass noodle soup at Ningxia Night Market. Photo: Jules Quartly

The only catch was that not all stores could accept the vouchers. This did not deter Ningxia, which introduced its own scheme, whereby Triple Stimulus Vouchers could be exchanged for convenient NT$50 night market coupons, with the added draw of discounts and lottery prizes. 

A smart and responsive Ningxia Night Market Tourism Association (NNMTA) has made sure the market has been ahead of the curve. About half of the stalls at Ningxia accept an array of electronic payments such as Easy Wallet, JKOPAY, Alipay, and others.

There are now plenty of ways to pay without using cash at Ningxia Night Market. Photo: Jules Quartly

Delivering results

Food delivery is another area where Ningxia caught on quickly. Just one month before the first reports of COVID-19, Uber Eats set up its first night market delivery service in Taiwan at Ningxia.

It’s late afternoon and vendors ready their equipment for another night of business at Ningxia Night Market. Photo: Jules Quartly

“Thinking internationally while operating locally has been our central strategy,” says Lin Ding-kuo, president of the NNMTA. “We hope to attract more international tourists and believe the ability to review customer feedback and data-driven insights will also help us improve our offerings.”

Advertising was also part of the food delivery strategy, with stars like singer Jolin Tsai plugging the market and the service. After Ningxia, Uber Eats has expanded to work with many of the individual stalls in Taipei’s night markets. The other big player in the food delivery market, foodpanda, has done the same.

Foodpanda and Uber Eats delivery drivers have a big presence in many of Taipei’s night markets these days. Photo: Jules Quartly

However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Many vendors rebelled after the costs of delivery rose. A stall owner in Ningxia who asked not to be named says they did initially go with Uber Eats but it wasn’t worth it in the end because the delivery service price cut too far into profits. Other vendors say it has been hard to turn away any business during the pandemic.

Monga Night Market in Taipei’s oldest district of Wanhua doesn’t have the range of eats that Ningxia has. It’s not as smartly laid out as Dongdamen, or as large as Tonghua and other night markets, but it does have an active night market association, which has come up with a solution of its own.

Tonghua Night Market at twilight, opening for a night of business. Photo: Jules Quartly

Many of the vendors at Monga felt the online delivery platforms were taking too large a cut, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. Realizing in May that tourist numbers weren’t going to revive any time soon, they decided to start their own delivery service, which also works through the Monga People Facebook group.

While the service does not include bright panniers, uniforms, or data-driven metrics, it does deliver meals – even to quarantine hotels.

Whether it’s providing food delivery, creating upgraded and eco-friendly surroundings, exploring new market opportunities such as Muslim tourists, tweaking the food offerings, or supplying live entertainment, night markets are finding ways to become more appealing across the board.

That is an important development because night markets are central to Taiwanese life, a place for food and late-night fun for everyone, north or south, rich or poor, single or married with a family. They have become a symbol of Taiwan, even as they have been disappearing in other culturally Chinese countries and territories, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and even China.

And much like Taiwan’s ability to reinvent itself, night markets are evolving and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.