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Shopping in the Underground

by Douglas Habecker

It is a little-known fact that one of Taichung's most unusual shopping venues is, for all intents and purposes, completely invisible. Although it is located next to a major city road, most passers-by don't even realize it's there. It contains dozens of shops but there are no signs to mark its presence. The place in question is the Underground Market which, literally, is underground.
Located along or, rather, underneath a busy stretch of Wuchuan Road, this decades-old market is a throwback of sorts to old Taiwan, providing a low-key, quiet shopping experience that is more of a nostalgic exploration.
It seems like the only way that one discovers the underground market these days is via word-of-mouth, which is how I found it. Some foreign friends had become loyal customers of one of the market's small stores -- a watch shop which they all called "Super Dave's". Another friend liked to buy military surplus items there. I decided to check it out, although finding it the first time was an uncertain experience.
The market is accessed via two stairwells, which descend under an storefront block. However, there are no major signs to mark its presence, other than the name of the market painted in Chinese on a wall, with an arrow pointing down. Once downstairs, one emerges into a quiet maze of narrow passageways, lit by overhead skylights and filled with small shops selling similar items.
Other than Super Dave's (which is to the left and on a corner from the stairs), there are two or three dozen other shops which mostly sell clothes but have some other interesting items. There are plenty of leather jackets and longer coats, men's silk boxer-style underwear, mahjong sets and smoking paraphernalia including lighters, a large selection of fine pipes, imported pipe tobacco and cigars, including some Cubans.
At one end of the market there is a larger corner selling a variety of local military gear and clothing, including army hats, jungle boots, uniforms, flight jackets, parkas, sleeping bags, blankets, canteens, knit pullover caps, belts and insignias. Miss Wu, who ran the shop, gestured at the market's almost-empty passages and said that recent years had not been kind ones for the market's shops.
Two years ago, a large above-ground vegetable market behind and connected to the underground area moved to another location on Chungching Road, cutting off what had been a steady stream of customers.
"Business has been very bad, with only a few people a day, even before the Chinese New Year. After the vegetable market closed, it has been like this and, as a result, some shops have closed. The poor economy has also hurt us. However, we will stay," she said, noting that the market had been in existence between 20 and 30 years.
Indeed, the market is a very quiet place these days. Elderly men and women and a few younger ones tend their shops, watch TV or sit in passages, talking to each other. Some of them work at sewing machines, tailoring dresses and suits. Only one or two customers can be seen. Some shops are shuttered.
Nevertheless, the peaceful setting is a refreshing change from the chaotic setting above as one wanders through the passages. The residents also try to keep things neat and clean, sweeping and mopping public area floors. Another woman selling cigars and clothes was more positive about the market, blaming a drop in business on overall economic problems in Taiwan and not on the departure of the vegetable market. Customers still found their way underground and brought their business, she said.
Hopefully, her more upbeat assessment will prove true for the vendors of the Underground Market as they continue, into an uncertain future, to provide a delightfully-unusual shopping experience. (Getting There: Heading downtown on Taichung Harbor Rd., turn left on Wuchuan Rd. Just after the second traffic light (after Hsitun and Tu Hsing rds.), there is a block of storefronts, at 176, Wuchuan Rd. The market is underneath, accessed by two stairwells there).


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