War stories and exotic food in Taipei’s Little Burma

War stories and exotic food in Taipei’s Little Burma

Orange-robed Buddhist monks, war veterans and fish noodle soup make up Myanmar's corner of Taiwan

It was an Italian friend living in Taipei who told me about Little Burma located in the southern part of the city. Not the locals. Many locals hadn’t a clue about the place when I asked them.

It’s not easy to find, tucked away in a side street in a nondescript area. At first glance, it looks like any other side street in the capital.

But Hua Xin Street and its surrounds are a little piece of Myanmar that's lodged itself in Taiwan.

buddhist monk in TaiwanA monk wanders the Little Burma market in search of alms.Orange-robed Buddhist monks roam the streets begging for alms, Burmese text is emblazoned on signboards and many of the sights and smells are straight out of Yangon.

Yet the people still speak Mandarin Chinese -- most of the almost 100,000 inhabitants in the Hua Xin Street area are ethnic Chinese who moved to Taiwan from Myanmar (also known as Burma).

Lin Wen Sheng Little BurmaLin Wen Sheng is a Nationalist through and through. He holds a portrait of himself taken 60 years ago.Take Lin Wen Sheng. He is a spry 87-year-old grocery store owner, born in the mainland Chinese province of Fujian across the strait from Taiwan.

He fought the Japanese with the Nationalist army until 1945 and today he becomes my ad hoc tour guide in Little Burma, regaling me with tales of the Chinese Diaspora in Myanmar.

Burmese grocery store in TaipeiMr. Lin and his wife run a small grocery store selling Burmese produce and other products from Southeast Asia.“We Chinese work hard, and we will go anywhere to work for a living to support our families,” he says. “That’s how Chinese ended up in a place like Burma.”

After the war, he moved first to Hong Kong and eventually settled in Rangoon (now called Yangon) in 1948. He became a factory owner and then a rice trader, but kept close ties with the Nationalist government that had relocated to Taiwan in 1949.

Little Burma, TaipeiLittle Burma is not easily found, but can be identified by signage with distinct Burmese characters.In the early 1990s, he was approached by Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist party to immigrate to Taiwan, all expenses paid. “The Nationalist party has always been very friendly to overseas Chinese and they especially welcomed my return since I was a former Nationalist soldier who fought the Japanese.”

Now he runs his grocery shop from which he regales customers with old war stories.

lady cooking monhinga soupMs. Gong shreds young banana stem for the next day’s monhinga soup.Mr. Lin’s neighbor, 64-year-old Mr. Chao, is a Burmese-Chinese who has lived in Taipei for more than 30 years and runs Gong Mama Fish Soup Noodle, serving traditional Burmese dishes.

The must-try is monhinga, a fish noodle soup that is widely considered the national dish. His wife is cutting up what looks like a green tree trunk.

Monhinga noodle soupMonhinga noodle soup.“That’s young banana stem -- we’ll dice it and stew it in curry and spices starting at 5 a.m. until it’s ready to be served after 10 a.m.” says Ms. Gong, Mr. Chao’s wife.

monhinga noodle soupMr. Chao makes the national dish, monhinga, a noodle soup made with banana stems. “I married late and moved here with my wife who had family here. We have no children so this noodle shop is our pension,” says Mr. Chao.

“Business is not good these days, the younger generations have moved away and inflation eats into our profits as we cannot raise the prices of our dishes accordingly.”

Chili soup in Taiwan's Little BurmaA bowl of chili soup is served and sold from an open-air stall. I wander around the side streets peaking into Burmese bookshops and grocery stores and stumble upon the lively Burmese market with fresh produce from Taiwan, Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia as well as clothing, household goods and snacks.

If you’ve never been to Myanmar, this is a perfect place to sample the country's snacks.

There are various types of curries as well as freshly baked flat bread to soak them up.

Burmese expatriates drinking teaBurmese expatriates enjoy tea on a chilly winter day.Locals drinking Burmese milk tea (which tastes a bit like Indian chai) outside at plastic tables seem oblivious to the hustle and bustle around them.

There are no tourists at all.

“I’ve found my final stop after wandering around Asia for the last 60 years,” Mr. Lin says. He couldn’t have chosen a more homely place.

 

Derrick Chang is a Canadian photojournalist based in Hong Kong. His work has appeared in Time, the New York Times, CNNGo, Huffington Post, and other Asian media outlets. He enjoys hiking from one mountain village to another, waiting for the golden light and dining on street food.

Read more about Derrick Chang
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