Coronavirus pandemic

Visitors to Taipei's night markets up but some vendors see slow recovery

Taiwanese at the Tonghua Night Market in Taipei last month, amid the Covid-19 outbreak. After months of staying at home, people have turned to domestic travel and outdoor sports with a vengeance. While business has picked up slightly since last month
Taiwanese at the Tonghua Night Market in Taipei last month, amid the Covid-19 outbreak. After months of staying at home, people have turned to domestic travel and outdoor sports with a vengeance. While business has picked up slightly since last month, it is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.ST PHOTO: KATHERINE WEI

"Revenge outing" is the latest thing in Taiwan, where the Covid-19 outbreak has been kept well in check, with under 450 confirmed cases and seven deaths since the first case was reported in January.

After months of staying at home, people have turned to domestic travel and outdoor sports with a vengeance. Many have also resumed visits to Taipei's vibrant night markets, popular for local specialities and street food, shopping and their heady atmosphere.

"Things are looking so much better now. Look, I have people lining up for a table! My regulars started coming back in May," said Mrs Huang Su-mei, 54, who runs a pepper shrimp stand with her family in Ningxia Night Market in Taipei.

Customers expressed surprise at having to line up on a Wednesday night, with some saying that the coronavirus scare had started to die down.

The Ningxia market is popular among locals and tourists alike. It was also the first night market in Taipei to accept Alipay and other third-party payment options, pandering to the many Chinese tourists who visit it.

"We did see a drop in February and March, especially after (the government) closed the borders... but locals would still come from time to time, so we didn't get hit that badly," said Ms Chang Zhi-huei, 33, a volunteer standing guard at one of the market's two entrances, armed with a spray bottle of alcohol sanitiser. She sprays the hands of visitors before allowing them inside.

At all night markets, vendors have to remain 1m to 1.5m apart - a rule that visitors are encouraged to follow - and everyone has to wear a mask. The rules also apply to eateries and bubble tea shops, which remain open in Taiwan.

Mr Lin Shih-lung, 25, who works at Truedan, one of Taiwan's main bubble tea franchises, gestured at the group of people clustered outside the shop waiting for their orders. No one was standing more than a metre apart, and a few were not wearing masks. People are no longer as cautious as they had been in previous months, he said.

From behind her mask, handbag seller Ho Kai-cheng complained about plummeting sales.

She gauges business by "kaishi" - when she makes her first sale of the day - which vendors believe will bring good business for the day.

"Kaishi used to happen around 5pm for me, but I often haven't sold anything by 9pm," said Ms Ho, 40. The vendor has been selling handbags and purses for over 20 years at Tonghua Night Market.

 
 
 

"My earnings have gone from maybe NT$5,000 (S$235) on a busy Saturday night to zero since the Covid-19 outbreak," said Ms Ho.

While business has picked up slightly since last month, it is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. Even the Sars epidemic in 2003 did not affect business this badly, she lamented. Her market neighbour and friend, Mr Wu Tai-hu, 50, has sold Taiwanese ice cream in local fruit flavours for eight years.

"I think sales have dropped 70 per cent between January and May. Things are slightly better now because the weather is hotter and locals feel safer venturing out after the number of cases stopped going up so fast," he said.

"I can tell they're not scared because hardly any of them are wearing masks. Plus the weather is hot, so they're buying my ice cream!"

But over at Shilin Night Market, business has been abysmal, said a tofu pudding seller who gave her name as Ms Nguyen.

The market is one of Taipei's biggest and a favourite among tourists, who have been barred from visiting Taiwan since March 23. The busloads of mainland Chinese tourists and other foreign tourists in the past decade were sorely missed by the market vendors.

 
 

"I don't see business getting any better at all," said Ms Nguyen, 34, shaking her head. "I counted fewer than 50 people coming down the street tonight."

On a normal night, the market would be so packed that it would be impossible to put a number to the passers-by, she said.

Echoing her observation, police officer Hsieh Tsung-lun, 26, from the police station near Shilin Night Market, said: "I've never seen this night market so empty before. The lack of tourists has really hit the vendors hard."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2020, with the headline 'Visitors to Taipei's night markets up but some vendors see slow recovery'. Print Edition | Subscribe