War stories and exotic food in Taipei’s Little Burma
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.
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).
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.