Exploring old Taipei following your nose
It was a street you loitered in when you were a barefooted imp, chasing your playmates down the darkened alleys. Yet having left home for so long, you find yourself back in a haze of newly constructed buildings and unfamiliar sights … and then you catch a whiff of familiarity.
What was it? Burning sticks of incense? Blooming flowers on your favorite shrub nearby? And then you hear the chanting from the nearby temple, and relax: things are still the same, the smells have brought you back to your mischievous days of lore.
Scent is a wonderful thing that preserves memory the way film and images fail to. Certain scents are branded into one’s mind and connected to specific memories that rush back when the same smell enters one’s nose again. And when you think about it, Taiwan has a culture built on a rich mixture of smells that would trigger any local’s memory with a sniff.
A tall girl with a frank smile, founder of The Smells of Taipei Huang Jung ( ) animatedly introduces her project to me. After participating in free tours led by locals throughout different places in Europe during her time as an exchange student, she was inspired to start a similar project that would draw foreign visitors in Taiwan into nooks and crannies that only the locals would know.
Having lived in Taipei’s Wanhua District since her birth, Huang was proud of her home and thought Taiwan, as did many, a beautiful piece of land.
“I thought it would be nice to start a special tour here for foreigners to better understand Taiwanese culture, but I didn’t want this to just become a copy of the free tours in Europe,” said Huang.
She pointed to three pictures in front of her. One was a cutoff from the “Taipei Tone” soundtrack cover that was promoted during Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s cam- paign for mayor, another was a part of a map of Taipei, and the third a simple sketch of a nose. I realized I was looking at the same silhouette in the pictures: the first two showed the Danshui River running in a curve that was strikingly like the third sketch of the nose. “The river always seem to be the story teller,” said Huang, who remembers an old bookstore she discovered on the bank of the Seine.
Wanhua is one of the first developed areas in Taipei, and boasts of a history rich with traditional practices, a wide range of social communities, as well as a history of gangster culture and prostitution. “What we have here is a smell of a subculture, smells that do not have names,” said Huang. “As you know, there are many homeless people in the streets of Wanhua. While some foreigners may discriminate against them, I feel that this is a friendly land that takes in all sorts of people.”
Huang devised a tour that would lead foreign visitors in Taipei through her beloved Wanhua, weaving a story that began from the everyday lives of the local residents. It starts from the renowned Longshan Temple with its smell of incense and burning candles, and proceeds to Herb Alley (
), where all kinds of herbs are sold for health benefits, and to a secondhand bookstore with its fragrance of old print and yellowed paper. Next on the agenda would be the historical Guiyang Street, and a Japanese temple within which lingers the spirit of Taiwan when it was under the Japanese rule.
“This way, the visitors are taken through a galley of Taiwan’s history, from the Qing Dynasty to the Japanese rule and then the early days of the Republic of China,” said Huang.
Working at a fragrance company called Canjune, Huang said she has been always sensitive when it comes to smells and aromas. For the purpose of the tour, she exper- imented with fragrances and after two weeks of mixing, came up with a scent that took one through the tour with a sniff.
“You can smell a hint of flowers, which I meant to represent the sex workers in Wanhua. They are all old now, and the industry is an aging one … and then there is the smell of mint, which is a common ingredient found in Herb Alley. For the old bookstore, I used Tarragon, representing knowledge with its woodsy smell, and sandalwood for the sticks of burning incense in Longshan Temple. And at last, you will smell the scent of immortelle, the smell of forgiveness, strength that derives from sadness — this is the homeless people of Wanhua,” said Huang.
She pulled out a small vial, and offered me a dab on my wrists. I inhaled, and picked out the aromas as she described them one by one. “My home is a beautiful place, and you don’t have to go far from home to make friends,” she smiled.
Her love for Taipei was one that burned deep and true. “I don’t think all these tours through the same route would make me tired of the same things. This is a way for me to explore my own hometown through new eyes … I’m even trying to talk to the homeless in the streets, to get to know their life stories,” said Huang.
So far, Huang has taken three groups of foreign exchange students studying in different universities in Taipei for her Smells of Taipei tours, and the results proved excellent. The locals were eager to introduce their traditions and culture, and the students were glad for an unconventional way of getting to know the city.
“Oh, I think I will be launching them officially in a few weeks,” said Huang, who was getting her tiny bottles of Wanhua’s scent ready for her future clients.
Close your eyes and inhale. Taipei is ready for you to see it, only through a boggling variety of aromas.
1. Huang’s “tourists” are seen smelling the sticks of incense sold at Longshan Temple in Wanhua.
2. A foreign visitor smells minty herbs in Wanhua’s Herb Alley during one Smells of Taipei tour. 3. Huang Jung, founder of the Smells of Taipei tours, is seen smelling herbs in this photo.