Do you have a place in your hometown that you can envision as clearly as your childhood bedroom — every color, every store sign — as though your mind had the capabilities of Google Street View?
Mine is called Zhongxiao East Road — specifically, Section Four. Many “roads” in Taipei function as avenues do in New York: long enough to almost traverse the entire city. They are therefore often parceled into “sections,” of which Zhongxiao has a total of seven. Section Four is known for being in the heart of Taipei’s ever-bustling East Shopping District, with a mixture of old and new attractions that draw crowds of all ages. It has, for this reason, maintained my loyalty in all stages of my life.
My acquaintance with Zhongxiao began in the first grade, when I attended elementary school on the cusp of Sections Four and Five, and would stroll down Section Four, munching on traditional egg cakes and gawking at the colorful pens and manga in Kingstone, a massive chain bookstore. Years later, I would be returning for the legendary nightclub OMNI, formerly Luxy, and cheap clothes from street vendors. (These upright citizens are technically illegal sellers and literally sprint away when the police come patrolling, a Tom-and-Jerry chase so frequent and entertaining that it has become something of a minor tourist attraction.)
The area is clustered with some of the best restaurants in the city, from dumplings à la Sichuan, China to traditional soup noodles from the south of Taiwan. None are fancy, and all are clean and affordable, even for college students. The street also produces some of the most famous desserts in the country, including Ice Monster, an extremely popular shaved-ice joint with a specialty in mango, as well as Dongqu Fengyuan (“East District Tapioca”), a longtime pilgrimage destination for Taiwan’s famed sweet tapioca ice.
In recent years, the street has been sprouting more foreign imports than ever, but not of the ubiquitous and unattainable Paris-Fashion-Week boutiques. Instead, the sidewalks provide an extensive line-up of what is commonly known as “affordable fashion” from all around the world, including Uniqlo, Zara, Forever 21, Aldo, Mango (Spain), GU (Japan), SPAO (Korea) and other mid-range options with spacious, sometimes multi-story storefronts.
If you’re not so into wearing the mainstream, fret not: Zhongxiao’s Section Four also spreads into many tributaries — smaller alleys and lanes that, for blocks on end, are seamlessly lined with smaller restaurants and shops with more East Asia-specific goods. To one side of the street is my favorite shopping district: an intricate network of independent street-style stores that sell the latest Japanese, Korean and Hong Kong imports from unknown brands and young aspiring designers, along with Taiwan-designed and manufactured goods that have shockingly good quality for the cost. These are dotted with equally hip cafés, bars, beer houses and Japanese-style izakayas. (Note: underclassmen, rejoice — the legal drinking age in Taiwan is 18.)
In addition, Section Four is bookended by larger institutions of vastly different natures: to one end, across from some of Asia’s famous cat cafes, is the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, with a historical building where tourists gather to watch the ceremonial changing of guards and vast gardens that include a fountain show that plays by the hour. Meanwhile, on the other end there are two massive department stores called Sogo, one of the most popular hotspots for families and businesspeople.
This brings me to perhaps my favorite thing about downtown Taipei: There are very few districts explicitly designated for residential, business or consumer purposes. Rather, everything tumbles together into one giant brew of life. Even on a street as commercialized as Zhongxiao East Road, edgy bar-lounges can be found neighboring ancient electronics shops run by elderly couples; the largest 24-hour bookstore in the world is just down the road from decades-old noodle shops. Like the rest of the country, this street is a warm, welcoming mesh of the big and the small, the traditional and the original.